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Alex Reynolds reviews Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Alex Reynolds reviews Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

My love of jazz is anchored in the formative years of syncopated ragtime and the emotional wailing of blues. I focus on the early decades of the twentieth century, and Ma Rainey was the reigning blues queen. Her commanding voice a unique instrument to an American form of music which was also a conduit to the Black experience of the era.

I was drawn to the big screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Broadway play which provides insight into the persona of the Mother of the Blues. Ma claimed authorship of the very name of the music that she popularized in some 100 recordings beginning in 1923. I think she would be celebrated in this our time if we’d open our ears to her music. Perhaps this film will at least steer us to that possibility.

Its 1927, a recording session in Chicago (the narrative unfolds in just two rooms, the recording studio, and a small rehearsal room). Ma Rainey (splendidly played by Viola Davis) shows up late. She demands a Coke, which has to be purchased at a store frequented by Blacks (Jim Crow laws). Time is lost finding an establishment serving Blacks, and it’s here we learn of segregation hardships as the musicians talk about discrimination, harassment and lynching at the hands of white men. It’s a theme touched on in Ma Rainey’s songs throughout the film. A connection can be made as well to Billie Holiday’s emotional 1939 signature opus “Strange Fruit”.

Drama ensues when the talented trumpet player Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman) insists his own arrangements of Rainey’s songs be used instead of the traditional arrangements. During the argument with band leader Cutler (Colman Domingo), Levee whips out a knife relating a frightening account of foiling a planned assault by white men on his mother and lynching of his father.

Ma resists pressure to make her music more fashionable, claiming it reflects the authenticity of the blues, adding, “White folk don’t understand about the blues. They hear it coming out but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing because that’s a way of understanding life. The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something’s been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues.”

The film essentially summarizes the blues and its hold on black musicians as well as Ma Rainey herself. She tells Cutler that if her records didn’t make a lot of money, she would get no respect at all from Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) the white record producer. In fact, her record sales generate big cash for the company, allowing Ma to make demands and getting what she asks for.

There’s a softness to Rainey’s personality in her relationship with Sylvester (Dusan Brown) her nephew whom she’s integrating into the recording operation even though he’s burdened with a stuttering handicap. But it’s hard business in operational matters with her musicians, white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), and record producer Sturdyvant. Ma is firm on aesthetic and contractual issues, refusing to be maneuvered or subservient, and losing control of her talent and image. It’s a step up in racial equality and justice. Ma Rainey is one tuneful, tough dame.

In his last film appearance, the late Chadwick Boseman is being critically applauded for a consummate realization of his character Levee, a black musician stepped on by racial injustice. His hope of signing a record deal is thwarted by Sturdyvant who steals his music and records the songs using a white singer, backed by an all-white band. This is an ultimate dream crusher, a reflection of the indignities that have long plagued Black culture.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a powerful drama showcasing the versatility of Viola Davis. Here, she lives, breathes, and embraces the viewer showing a fully lived life challenged by adversity. Give Viola a role, and stand back….she covers it.

The prejudices inflicted towards Blacks offset by syncopated notes of early jazz (more jazz on film sound tracks please) captures a reality in this adaptation from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson whose play is among others he’s written dramatizing the black experience.

Stay for the end credits and hear Ma Rainey herself singing “Deep Moaning Blues”.


So, we retain memories of Christopher Plummer’s artistic endeavors. The Canadian born thespian, (died Feb. 5, aged 91), great grandson of Canada’s third Prime Minister, achieved international renown; in cinema, (“The Sound of Music” .Treading the boards Plummer’s Shakespearean repertoire (his specialty) was extensive and included “Macbeth”, “Henry V”, “Iago”, “Mercutio”, “Mark Antony”, “King Lear”, and “Hamlet”. I recall the pleasure of my CHCH on camera conversation with Plummer reclining on a Royal throne on the set of “Barrymore”.

A career extended over seven decades was recognized with a film Oscar, two Broadway Tony Awards, two Emmys, Screen Actors Guild and British Academy of Film and Television Arts statues, and a Golden Globe award.

I’m in agreement with theatrical producer David Mirvish’s appraisal of Christopher Plummer’s artistry, “Although a brilliant film actor, he was first and foremost a man of the theatre”.

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