Ma Rainey was a real person, and the Black Bottom was a real dance.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a tribute to both the people and the music of the 1920s.
Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey as fierce, demanding woman who won’t take “no” for an answer. The equally marvelous Chadwick Boseman, in his last performance (he died last year, at the age of 43, from cancer) is Levee, a trumpeter who is part of her group.
Most the story unfolds in a Chicago recording studio, where time is of the essence. But because of a number of factors, a single take seems to take an eternity.
The other musicians are Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts,) all familiar with Ma’s moods – they do not seem surprised when she insists on a Coca-Cola before she will perform – and what will make her happy.
The movie reminded me a lot of “Fences,” also written by playwright August Wilson, sometimes known as the “theater’s poet of Black America.”
Director George C. Wolfe (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”) gives the movie, based on the 1982 play, a bigger universe with streets teeming with people, vehicles and noise. Branford Marsalis’s score adds another touch of class and a feeling of a time gone by.
In the meantime, the musicians bicker, complain and share stories from their lives while they wait.
Not surprisingly, Davis disappears into the character of Ma, with added heft and smeary makeup that make her even more of a force to be reckoned with.
And then there’s Boseman, gone far too soon but capping off a legacy with this superb performances as the musician who longs for recognition and a band of his own. He wrestles with his personal demons with every breath, particularly in a show-stopping monologue that’s one of the best onscreen deliveries of 2020.
The movie left me wanting to hear more of the real Ma Rainey’s music – thanks so much, YouTube! – and other music of her era.
She and Boseman both have left a lasting legacy.
3 ½ out of 4 stars
Running time: One hour and 34 minutes.
Rated: PG-13 for foul language and sexual situations.
Streaming on Netflix.