Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

January 4, 2021 • 11:00 am

It’s strange: I feel an unaccountable malaise today, unable to get down to doing anything, and I’ve already heard from three other people who have the same symptoms. Could it be that the first Monday of 2021 is giving us the blues?

All I’m capable of this morning is reviewing a movie I watched this weekend. There’s been a lot of buzz about 2020s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a Netflix film adaptation of the eponymous play by the celebrated August Wilson. The movie was recommended by an old friend, but also by a reader here in the comments on my last movie post.

I haven’t seen the play—indeed, I hardly see any plays—so I was keen to see something by August Wilson. My overall take: it was a good movie but not a great one, seeming to me to be too much of a play with episodes and set pieces that, while very well acted, seemed contrived, as if the screenwriter was trying to cram too much into a 90-minute movie.

If you haven’t seen it, I won’t give any spoilers, but a brief summary is this: the movie is about power: the power that whites have over blacks, and how blacks try to fight it by asserting their own power. This theme is played out through two characters, the famous blues singer Ma Rainey, acted terrifically by Viola Davis, an Oscar winner. It’s 1925, and Ma has traveled north to Chicago with her lesbian lover and young nephew to record a few blues songs for a “race records” outfit. (The cinematography and re-creation of Chicago in that era is wonderful.) Having been at the mercy of whites all her life, Ma realizes that she is a gold mine for the white owners of the record company, and so demands to be treated like a queen. As she is the queen—of blues—the whites truckle before her, but only because she is a source of cash. She doesn’t come off as a likable person though, for she’s just plain nasty to everyone, black or white. If she’s to be the heroine of the movie, it didn’t work well. But maybe Ma Rainey really was a jerk.

Ma’s backed up at the studio by four black musicians, with the second protagonist being the trumpet player Levee, who has his own reasons to hate whites. Levee takes out his frustration in several ways, one of them being to make his own musical arrangements of Ma’s songs—something that she’ll have no part of. He also has ambitions to write his own songs and create his own band, a plan that the white studio owners have stymied. Levee is played by another terrific actor: the late Chadwick Boseman, who died last August of colon cancer, only 43 years old.

This is one movie that gives me trouble articulating why I don’t think it’s great, though it’s very good and you should see it. I suppose it’s because the pace is too fast, the language too quick and unrealistic (this was the problem with the execrable television show The Gilmore Girls, though the movie is far superior.) The movie, then, is a showcase for Davis and Boseman, each having episodes that made the movie seem play-like, and the dialogue pretty contrived. Boseman, for example, has three “telling” episodes: one in which he describes the incident that made him hate whites, another in which he curses God, arguing that no good god could exist given what Levee’s seen, and the final scene, which I won’t spoil.

Boseman’s acting is wonderful, and he’s been justly celebrated for his range and ability. I suppose I would have liked to see a longer movie with a slower pace, slower dialogue, and with an ending that didn’t seem so contrived.  Oh, and there wasn’t nearly enough music, but I guess since it’s an adaptation of a play, that’s understandable. After all, it’s about power, not the music itself.

But I do recommend it; it’s far better than most stuff you can see these days. After I finish this I’ll go look at the Rotten Tomato reviews, which I’ve avoided reading (and note them in an addendum below) to see if how many critics agree with me.

In the meantime, here’s the movie’s trailer, Netflix’s “making of” video, and a recording by Ma Rainey herself.

Netflix’s seven-minute “making of the movie” video, with biographical information about Rainey.

Here’s the original recording, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, recorded in Chicago, but in 1927, not 1925.

And here’s her band (photo from the link right above).

ADDENDUM: Okay, I went to Rotten Tomatoes after I wrote the above, and found that the movie has about the highest critics’ rating possible: 99% (233 critics!), with 80% of the audience liking it. (Click on screenshot):

Of the 68 “top critics” who weighed in, only two—Angelica Jade Bastién from New York Magazine and Rafer Guzman from Newsday—didn’t give it the high “tomato” rating. Bastién is far harder on the movie than I am (she’s black, by the way), and you can read her review to see why she didn’t care for the movie at all (I also see that she agrees with me that Davis’s character is not a sympathetic one). An excerpt:

I don’t want to obscure the rot at the heart of this film. August Wilson may be a beloved playwright, as evidenced by how keen Hollywood is to adapt his work, but Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s version of Ma Rainey does nothing to show us why this is the case. The script touches on issues that have the potential to be powerful — Black intra-racial relations, the tension between northern and southern Black folks, the ways Black artists must navigate white power structures that seek to strip their work bare. But these issues are merely touched on, and the dialogue that otherwise surrounds them is stilted, laughable even. Take, for example, the moment when Levee, in seducing Dussie Mae [Ma’s lover] asks, “Can I introduce my red rooster to your brown hen?” A line that deserves an eye roll is instead received as if it is the height of seduction. Ma Rainey has the weight of Hollywood power players behind it, but it seems incapable or uninterested in taking advantage of the delights of what film can do.

I’m still keen to watch movies these days, so recommend some others below.

31 thoughts on “Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

  1. That film appears to have a great period music performance, as in R. Altman’s Kansas City.

    “I’m still keen to watch movies these days, so recommend some others below.”

    Waiting for Superman

    ^^^also has a book and there’s a bio of Michelle Rhee – “The Bee Eater”, possibly more books I haven’t found

  2. I thought the film was excellent for all the reasons you provide and was not bothered by what I take to be your main complaint, that it was too “play-like”. I am not bothered by that since the screenplay is after all taken from the play. Neither was I troubled that the character of Ma Rainey is not warm/lovable/kindly. (I doubt it was in the play, either, although I’ve not seen it. Nor would I be surprised to learn that she was like this in life… people can be like this and I see no reason to assume she wasn’t.) Also, I think Bastién is just off-base in her review.

  3. I second the review straight down the line, especially that its one serious flaw is that it’s too much of a play. Ironic that a production which includes this much jazz couldn’t improvise its way into the new format.

  4. One reason for the blues could be due to thinking about the coming political battles on Tuesday and Wednesday.

    Even though the Dem candidates have a decent chance of winning on Tuesday, we know that, except for Trump, Republicans still have a stranglehold on the South. If the Dems don’t win back the Senate, we can look forward to four more years of McConnell his obstruction.

    We pretty much know that the Republicans will lose their coup attempt on Wednesday but we are still going to be left with a large segment of voters thinking that the election was stolen. Then there’s all the ugly stuff that seems bound to happen between this last Trump loss and Biden’s inauguration. Trump has been on relatively good behavior (for him anyway) up until Biden’s win is made official by Congress. After that it’s Katy bar the door.

    1. Trump has been on relatively good behavior …

      Good behavior? You’ve not heard the hourlong telephone browbeating Trump laid on Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, hondling him to lose 11,780 Biden ballots somehow — anyhow! — so Trump could swipe Georgia’s 16 electoral-college votes?

        1. Never fear. Trump will continue to define seditious deviancy downward until noontime, the 20th of this month..


          1. Forgive me if I am talking nonsense but I thought that call was even more odious than Watergate. It struck at the heart of democracy. Can impeachment proceedings commence and continue against an ex president?

            1. Obviously, there is no direct legal precedent on this issue, and constitutional experts are divided on whether a former president is still subject to impeachment proceedings. The “pro” side is based on the text of Article I, Section 3, which states, “Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.” (emphasis added) There was a full discussion of this, setting out both sides of the argument, in this article about a month ago in The Washington Post.

              And I think you’re right; Trump is much worse than Nixon. Trump has a nihilist streak that makes Nixon seem by comparison a staid institutionalist.

              Nevertheless, I think it unlikely we will see a push to institute post-presidency impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. I think a criminal indictment is more likely.

              1. Thanks for this Ken. I wasn’t really drawing a comparison between Nixon and Trump – Nixon had some good points. I was comparing this call by Trump to Watergate. This call attacked the sanctity and security of voting. This showed utter contempt for the only part of the democratic process in which the vast majority of citizens participate. I cannot imagine any politician in the UK doing this and surviving 5 minutes. I cannot envisage him or her gaining support from any colleagues.
                This has almost made me she’d rears for America.

  5. My current movie suggestions:

    Sound of Metal, a movie about a metal band drummer losing his hearing. It’s very good.

    Pixar’s Soul. It’s just delightfully weird.

    Mank. It’s about Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.

  6. … it was a good movie but not a great one, seeming to me to be too much of a play with episodes and set pieces that, while very well acted, seemed contrived …

    Except for the “contrived” part, that’s similar to the criticism I had of the last August Wilson play adapted to the screen, 2016’s Fences, starring (and directed by) Denzel Washington (who served as co-producer on Ma Rainey) and Viola Davis (who plays the Ma Rainey title character).

    As frequently happens when great actors turn their hand to directing, Denzel provided a great performance himself and coaxed wonderful performances from his castmates — and the dialogue, much of it taken directly from August Wilson’s play, sparkled, too — but Denzel failed to open the play up sufficiently to convert it to great cinema. This is especially likely to occur where the actor-director has starred in the stage version of a play (as Denzel did in the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences) since they tend to be overly respectful of the source material, unwilling to take the chances with it that might be needed to turn it fully into a great film.

  7. I agree with your criticism of the movie, that it moves too quickly. My feeling is that in a theater performance of the play, there would be those brief or long interruptions by scene changes or intermissions that gives an audience time to process the previous goings on, perhaps?

    Just as a side note, in the picture of Ma and her band you see Thomas A. Dorsey. He eventually stopped playing blues music and moved into writing and performing gospel music. His most famous composition was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” performed and recorded hundreds of times. You can watch a movie about him and the gospel world he helped to create called “Say Amen, Somebody.” I saw this movie when it came out in the mid-eighties, in NY. One of my most favorite films.

  8. I very much like these movie reviews. The movie is on my list of things to watch.

    I recently got a nice surprise by watching The Invisible Man on HBO. I had not given this movie a thought when it was out in theaters. I found it to be far better than I expected. I won’t try to weigh it as great movie art, or whatever. Its just that I was expecting a lot less and it was well more than that. It was interesting to study how the director used camera angles and silence to build tension and a sense of pure malevolence from… something in the room.

  9. I actually liked the play aspect of this film. I used to see a lot more theater and got to love how minimal sets and great dialog can really tell a story. I’m also finding that a lot of modern movies with minimal dialog and a lot of CGI are really boring me.

  10. I’m a fan of that era of music and I’ve liked Ma Rainey but I knew nothing about her life before I watched this. As Jerry said, it looks like a play. I liked it but will agree with Jerry it looked like a play and there should have been a lot more music because she made some good music that is worth listening to. Not a bio-pic as I think the only thing I learned about Ma is that she was a lesbian.

    Cheers to Jerry for reviewing this!

  11. There are two films I’ve seen recently that I’d recommend. One is Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, and written and directed by Noah Baumbach. I’ve heard it described as Bergmanesque — I suppose in homage to the tv mini-series on a similar topic, Scenes From a Marriage, by the great Swedish auteur — though I didn’t see much similarity other than the subject matter. It was, however, solidly made, with very good performances across the board and nary a false note to be had anywhere. It also had a few bawdy lines that made me laugh out loud and a couple scenes that got me all misty (something I tend to do, particularly when watching a movie alone).

    The other one is I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the third directorial effort (second, live-action) by Charlie Kaufman — who is, for my money, the best, most-creative screenwriter in the business today (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, among others). Kaufman’s yet to come fully into his own as director, but he’s getting damn close with this one.

    It’s got great performances from Jesse Plemons (the soldier/narrator from the Dick Cheney movie Vice, and Jimmy Hoffa’s perfidious nephew who sets him up for the hit in The Irishman) and from Jessie Buckley (the Irish actress who played the Glasgow country singer in Wlld Rose), as well as from screen stalwart Toni Collette and the Brit David Thewlis in supporting roles.

    Like all Kaufman’s screenplays, this one’s far from straightforward and will leave some confused (although all the info needed to figure the story out is set out pretty clearly by film’s end). As such, it’s the type of movie that rewards multiple viewings. (I’ve watched it twice now, and enjoyed it even more the second time around.)

  12. Here are my favorite films from recent in-theater showings (last few years).
    First Reformed. Lost and Beautiful (Italian). Searching (offbeat, brilliant post-racial movie). A Brand New Testament. Menashe. Death of Stalin. Anything by Denys Arcand. Anything with Leslie Melville or Mark Rylance.

  13. There are very few works of either cinema or literature which successfully combine humor with the
    grim reality of the holocaust and WWII, although there are plenty of failed attempts (like the recent
    “Jo Jo Rabbitt” or Begnini’s maudlin “Life Is Beautiful”) . In cinema, in fact, there is only one that I
    would call successful: the gripping, very funny, and haunting “Train de Vie” (1998) in French, Yiddish, and German. If the great Yiddish story writer I.L. Peretz had been a film-maker, he might have made a film of this sort: it was somewhat controversial, won some awards, and is unforgettable.

  14. Ma Rainey’s Bottom was quite good, but there was too much over-acting. I didn’t like the ending but that’s just me.

    I’d recommend the PBS Masterpiece movie (or wherever you can get it) Elizabeth Is Missing, starring the inimitable Glenda Jackson. ;
    as well as the Netflix movie The Children Act and Mudbound.

    Also love the PBS series Professor T, a Danish whodunnit series with English subtitles;
    the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit as well as the fun and mindless near soft-porn series called Bridgerton; and the series The Crown.

  15. I felt a malaise yesterday and couldn’t sleep at all. This is often a symptom of an impending migraine. I took some Benedryl as my throat closes a bit when I get migraines (I think because of the irritation of the trigeminal nerve) then I ended up taking a triptan. I was so knocked out in the morning I was pretty much dead to the world and I had to adjust my working day to sleep in as I was pretty comatose. I’m lucky that I had made a couple of meeting free days for myself so that I could catch up on all the stuff I had to do. I was able to do that this afternoon but at a very slow pace.

    So, your malaise may be due to the weather like my migraine was. The pressure has been going all over the place and the warmer winter has meant awful cloudy days.

  16. RE: Movies based on plays that don’t feel like movies, they feel like plays…
    Recently made the mistake of watching The Boys in the Band remake. I was curious because the play has some importance in gay history but man was it an ordeal to get through, despite a wonderful cast.

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