Ma Rainey’s nephew has just gotten into a car accident driving his aunt and her girlfriend to a recording session in a scene early “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
The scene is set in 1927 Chicago. Rainey, played by the incomparable Viola Davis, is about to be hauled away by the police.
Rainey is indignant. Don’t they know she’s the star?
They don’t. Her white manager bribes the cops. She sees the money go from one white hand to another.
Ma Rainey has a lot of power for a Black woman in 1927 America. Her voice sells records and white men will cater to her to a point.
But to get out of going to jail for speaking her mind about a traffic mishap, she needs her freedom bought by a white man.
If the viewer hasn’t caught on by now, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is not a musical bio pic. This is a film about the blues in their truest sense — the oppression of Black and brown people.
She punishes these white men for the oppression and slights she’s endured. She shows up late. She demands her stuttering nephew deliver the intro to her song. She orders Cokes be brought in to combat the heat. She drinks those Cokes slowly while the white record men swear and complain.
Ma Rainey’s voice makes them money. And for as long as it does, they will put up with her. She knows this, hates this and revels in it at the same time.
The trumpet player Levee Green (the late Chadwick Boseman in his final performance) rages against anyone and everyone who doesn’t recognize his ascendancy to the greatest trumpeter of all time.
Levee is cocky and mocks the old ways of his fellow bandmates. He ignores the advice of wise pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and mocks the faith of trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo).
Rage bursts from Levee in self-destructive explosions. He becomes obsessed with a locked door. He rams his body into it until he finally cracks through, revealing a space no bigger than a prison cell with the daylight far away — a symbol of how deep a hole the young Black man begins life and how each door broken through runs into another brick wall.
The story ends in tragedy and blood as so many do for Black Americans, then and now.
I would not go so far as to say I liked this movie, but I was absolutely impressed by it. I love the way playwright August Wilson uses language and builds tension with lines the way an orchestra reaches crescendo.
The reason I say I don’t like the movie is because it’s a sad story that makes a sadder statement about the plight of fellow humans that remains true today.
It’s hard to embrace such discomfort. But it’s a good idea that we do and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a worthy place to start.
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