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The Screen Scene: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

Before I begin my review for the week, I’d like to answer a question that I’m frequently asked by viewers:  how can we track down the movies that are discussed on The Screen Scene?  With all the Video on Demand (VOD) outlets and streaming services out there, movies can easily get lost in the digital weeds. 

On top of that, film festivals screen movies months before they are available to the general public and sometimes before they even have distribution deals.  So, how is a film fan supposed to keep track of everything?

The answer is simple:  download JustWatch to your phone or tablet.  It’s a free app that tells you where you can find a movie on streaming and rental services.

If you want to take full advantage of JustWatch, take a few moments to check off the streaming services you subscribe to, and JustWatch will let you know if the film you’re looking for is available through a service you already pay for.  If not, the app will list the places you can rent the film and will give you a price comparison across the various rental outlets offering the film. 

And, yes, I’m the kind of film nerd who keeps a running list of films I’ve been unable to find. I periodically search JustWatch to see if I have access to them yet.  You may want to do the same. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a small screen adaptation of the 1982 play by esteemed African American playwright August Wilson.  In 1927, Ma Rainey, the Queen of the Blues and a Columbus native, and her band traveled to Chicago to make a new record. 

The film is set in and around the studio during these recording sessions.  Gradually the joyousness of the music and the sense of humor of the first act give way to a tale of racism, bitterness and disappointment. 

The title of the film has several meanings.  Along with being the name of the stage play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is also the title of a song being recorded during the 1927 sessions which itself refers to the Black Bottom as a popular dance.  But, lastly, and most importantly, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has the double meaning you think it does.  If you put the correct verb in front of the title, you sum up the performer’s feelings about the white-owned and white-operated music business if they refuse to meet her demands as an artist.

Subsequent history has shown us that Ma Rainey’s suspicions were justified.  Legendary music manager Sam Phillips once said that if he could find a white man who could sing like a black R&B artist, he could make a fortune.  Then he discovered Elvis Presley.

Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones and other white artists received far greater fame and fortune than Chuck Berry, the actual originator of rock ‘n roll.  Ma Rainey understood that the notes coming out of her black mouth would never earn the money and the accolades they would earn if her face was white.  The tragedy of this truth hangs over the entire film.  

Chadwick Boseman gives an electrifying final performance as Levee, a young gun jazz trumpeter who plans to leave Ma Rainey and his old school bandmates behind for a life of playing adventurous jazz for younger audiences across the globe. 

I’m not usually a fan of big performances or Acting with a capital A, but the ferocity of Boseman’s portrayal perfectly fits the character and the unfolding narrative.  Levee’s talent is without question, but we see the moments of doubt when he wonders if his dreams will be limited by the color of his skin. 

Boseman’s undeniable screen presence is difficult to watch without reflecting on his premature death.  A posthumous Oscar may very well be in his future.  It would not be a sympathy award or an attempt to give a tidy Hollywood resolution to his death.  Much like Heath Ledger’s win for The Dark Knight, an Oscar for Boseman would be well-deserved recognition of a talented actor who left us before his prime.

Indeed, history could be made if Viola Davis is also rewarded with an Oscar for her stellar work as Ma Rainey.  Davis plays Ma as a distrusting, sullen woman of the world who only expects to be disappointed by the people surrounding her.  She doesn’t trust her white manager or the white owner of the record label running the recording sessions. 

At first glance, she seems like a prima donna, an artist who likes to make her minions jump.  As Davis’ performance deepens, the audience sees the calculation and self-preservation behind Ma’s difficult artistic persona.  The final scene of the film makes it clear why Ma Rainey is who she is.

Most of the WRBL viewing area knows that Ma Rainey was born in Columbus, Georgia.  After her career peaked, she returned to Columbus and lived here until she died in 1939 at the age of 53.  If Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom makes you want to know more about Ma Rainey and her musical legacy, visit the Ma Rainey House at 805 Fifth Avenue in Columbus.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres on Netflix on Friday, December 18th.

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