Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Updated: Apr 3
All stories are best when you go in cold and I knew nothing about this. Within seconds though we’re introduced to some black men running through a forest at night in 1920s Georgia... it’s hard not to make some instant assumptions. They’re off to a tent to watch Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) sing and boy can she. Clearly from the outset Rainey is a powerhouse, not just the voice but the attitude and as we’re transported to a Chicago recording studio, the heat cranks up. She’s the ‘Mother of the Blues’, a big claim. One that requires a big setting and this in its way is a big production. Its world looks fantastic, a perfectly pitch period piece that would make any golden age of Hollywood studio proud. Everyone looks fantastic too, probably none more so than horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) who introduces himself to the picture in a whirlwind of confidence. I can’t take my eyes off him. Together with his band mates Cutler, Toledo and Slow Drag we get some wonderfully paced scenes in a hot rehearsal room, the players bouncing off one another without playing a note and making it clear that this tight film is based on a play as they put forward their world view whilst pitching in some personal history. I’d probably be happy with this for 90 minutes, but Ma Rainey is in the title and this, despite what Levee has to say, is her show. As great as Boseman is, Davis is a powerhouse and every bit his equal. A dead eye bluntness and confidence that shrivels nearly every other player on screen. Yes there’s racial tension, but it’s largely addressed by the black characters amongst one another and the stories they tell. It’s one one big hot mess power play, with neither of the two leads being especially likeable. Both characters tarnished by the lives they‘ve lead, painting them with a repulsive arrogance that often masks their vulnerability. The tension though is palpable between everyone... until the music begins and then, perfect harmony. The music though is bizarrely secondary. Classic tension driving, building and brewing, you know something’s going to pop, but even when it does, even with the heat depicted on screen, your skin will prickle with the cold. Really fantastic stuff... and the music is cool too.