REVIEW: Netflix film ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a powerful retelling of history

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Actress Viola Davis plays “the Mother of Blues.”

The 2020 Netflix movie “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, was released Friday, Dec. 18. The movie follows a day in the life of Ma Rainey and her band. 

Ma Rainey was an American singer born in 1886, who was recognized as the first professional blues vocalist. She is widely considered the mother of blues. 

Set in 1927 Chicago, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” expresses the everyday life of Black musicians during this time. The frustrations, joy and injustice Black people endured in 1927 are conveyed in such a realistic manner, it feels as if the reader is living through that period with them.

Every scene and detail seems to have meaning. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is set on a hot summer’s day, and all the actors are dripping with sweat, making viewers feel the excruciating and uncomfortable Chicago heat.

Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis, shows integrity, grit and strength. Her fight for respect from everyone is felt thanks to Davis’s beautiful portrayal of a blues pioneer. Davis’s commitment to her role allows viewers to see the life of a Black artist fighting for respect in an unjust society. 

Ma Rainey’s strength is evident in many scenes throughout the film, but none stand out more than when she threatens to leave after the producers use a broken cord for the microphone and her song does not record. Standing her ground eventually leads to a white man begging her to stay. Davis’s acting in this scene allows viewers to see how much power Ma Rainey had, even during the time period. 

Levee, played by the late Chadwick Boseman, is part of Ma Rainey’s backup band. He is a complicated character on the rise to become an amazing musician, but he has a harrowing past that shows the horrors of segregation and racism in 1927. Boseman encapsulates the persona and mind of Levee, enabling viewers to see the effects of injustice, sparking compassion for the character.

During one scene, Levee has his chance to make it big in music – the only thing that keeps him grounded – ripped away. A door that he has been pushing to open in the rehearsal room finally opens after great effort, but there is nothing, just another wall. This scene symbolizes the nature of 1927 Chicago for Black Americans. No matter how hard they worked, another wall would come up and another door would slam in their face. The genius of the symbolic aspects of the film makes it confounding.

Along with incredible acting and scenes, the costumes featured in the film sell the authenticity. Costume designer Ann Roth’s attention to detail on each wardrobe piece brings the experience to life. The costumes and makeup transport the viewer back in time.

Although “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” only follows a single day in the life of Black musicians in 1927, it shows the strength that Black people had to have in order to gain respect. The film provides a visually-appealing vision back in time while simultaneously calling attention to the injustices of the era.