Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Movie Review: Any color you like, as long as it’s Black

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Jackson Piercy
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Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band singing those blues. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

For future reference, the titular “Black Bottom” was a type of dance that was pretty big in 1927, at least during Ma’s tours in the south. Though, if even give something of a glance at the lyrics of the song, Ma’s just as aware of the double entendre as the rest of us.

The origins of jazz in the minds of the American public is one rife with stories that are just begging to be told, even if they aren’t always entirely true. That being said, this particular film is based on a stage play, where as far as I can tell, Ma and her entourage are real or at least based on real people.

In 1927 in a recording studio in Chicago, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her ragtag band of jazz musicians, pianist Toledo (Glynn Thurman), trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and rising trumpeter Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman). To make a long story short, every single thing that could go wrong, does. There are car accidents, artistic disputes, technical difficulties, everything.

Ma’s cousin (Dusan Brown), who Ma requests specifically to do the vocal intro to the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” has a debilitating stutter. Now, taking a few takes on a song isn’t really that big of a deal, but in 1927, every single take used a blank vinyl record. All of that, on top of the only managerial individuals being what could be considered politely racist to the band throughout. Admittedly, it is pretty fun to see the two of them get smacked around by Ma Rainey.

This film, in terms of style, is about as cool as it gets. with Levee’s new yellow dress shoes, the way the characters banter and even the filmmaking techniques. Since this film is adapting a stage play, the characters are only put in two rooms throughout the film. Because of this, we’ve got ourselves a camera that is flying around about as much as a fly in the room. I can say in confidence that there were points where I forgot they’ve been in the same room the entire time the camera flied around.

All of the cool in the world, however, can’t hide the bubbling conflicts these characters have, in which is most apparent in the conflict between Levee and Cutler. This movie will leave you uncomfortable. Even the loosey-goosey camera stands perfectly still when the room calls for it. This movie is uncomfortable, and (to avoid spoilers as best as possible), will leave you pissed off. Not many movies can do half the things this one does.

You’ll be hearing a lot about this movie during awards season. This is apparent even without the unfortunate passing of star Chadwick Boseman. I can’t fathom how someone can have such energy and raw emotion with the state he was in. This movie will receive heaps of praise, and in a very rare circumstance, it will deserve every single helping. I can’t recommend this movie enough, just don’t expect the jovial mood at the beginning to stick like I thought it would.

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