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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Reviews

Reviewed By: Steven Yoder

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom tells the fictional story of a day in the life of the volatile Mother of Blues. But rather than being a story of music, director George C. Wolfe (Lackawanna Blues) and writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson (The Devil's Advocate) tell a powerful tale of the separate pain of two individuals, and through it, the suffering of an entire race. Their manager sets flamboyant "Mother of Blues" Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band to record a few songs for a record company. After delayed arrivals of both her and her trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), they finally get down to business, recording the songs her way rather than how the producer and Levee had planned. Through the conflict, each addresses their underlying anger about how they are treated, both by white men and by life.While the set is a Chicago recording session, the real story is the powerful soliloquies many of the characters, especially Ma and Levee, deliver about their lives and suffering as people of color at the turning point moment when blues was becoming popular. The music quickly moves into this telling script's background, right down to the final minutes, which say as much as the rest of the story combined.Both Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman deliver stunning performances. Davis shows the boisterous performer's vulnerability through an emotional speech about why she acts the way she does. This is only dwarfed by Boseman's sermons on his youth and his views on God, both buried in seething anger that the actor makes palatable. As his final performance before his untimely death, Boseman delivers more raw emotion than ever before. The rest of the cast revolves around these two. Still, Wolfe directs them in such a way that it feels like a comfortable, and sometimes uncomfortable, conversation between friends and coworkers.The sets capture the atmosphere of Chicago in 1927 well. The mood is set by dirty streets, rising skyscrapers, and substandard conditions where the musicians wait before entering the spotless recording studio. Not lost is the fact that the white men in charge of the recording are positioned above the musicians when the session begins. The music, including some original Ma Rainey recordings, illustrates a background of sadness that moves the plot forward well.Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is not a comfortable film to watch due to the era as well the depth and emotional portrayal of both the main characters by Davis and Boseman. However, it is an exceptional film, as both the final swan song for Chadwick Boseman and the beginning swan song of racial oppression. More importantly, it exposes that while one of those hymns is over, the other lingers on with more verses to come.