MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom - On Netflix Streaming and In Theaters
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Starring Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman
The great American playwright August Wilson wrote a series of ten plays during his lifetime that together are known as “The Century Cycle” or “The Pittsburgh Cycle”. Each play is set in a different decade of the 20th Century; together they tell a compelling story about the Black Experience. Denzel Washington hopes to produce film versions of all ten plays. The first film – set in the 1950s – was 2018’s Fences. Now we have Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in Chicago in the late 1920s.
Both of these movies are clearly filmed plays. Personally, I like the legacy of August Wilson’s language retained for future generations and appreciate the respect that is given to the spoken word. However, I am not sure that the brisk pace of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (it’s only 90 minutes long) is enough time to digest the meaty themes of this drama; it feels overstuffed.
The movie imagines a studio recording session featuring the popular blues singer Ma Rainey (Davis) and her band of musicians. She is also accompanied by her young nephew (Dusan Brown) and her female partner (Taylour Paige). The band members include the older and wiser piano player named Toledo (Glynn Turman) and the religious trombone and guitar player Cutler (Colman Domingo), who tries to keep everyone else in line. The wild card is trumpet player Levee (Boseman), who wants to break out on his own and play hotter and faster songs and not the “jug band music” of Delta blues.
Ma knows that her records are popular and uses her authority in order to guarantee that her manager and recording studio manager – both white – pay her band appropriately and keep the music pure.
Early in the film there is talk about folks who have sold their soul to the devil in order to get ahead. Levee reveals in two long speeches why he is scarred emotionally and physically and why he no longer believes in God. At the time of filming Boseman was aware that he was losing his battle with cancer and dug deep into his personal pain to rage against the Lord. It’s the Book of Job without the happy ending.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a reminder that as long as systemic racism endures there may not be a happy ending in plain sight. While we wait for a light to shine in the darkness, we listen to the blues and allow the music to carry us through to a brighter day.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Three halos: Reflections on race, music, and power are interwoven in this adaptation of a noteworthy stage drama.
Four pitchforks: Strong pervasive profanity, recreational alcohol and marijuana use, two sexually explicit scenes, a disturbing childhood remembrance, acts of violence.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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