Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – a review by Bongani Bingwa


That “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was the last film for the late Chadwick Boseman makes it all the more compelling to watch. The celebrated actor participated in the project in the advanced stages of his fight with cancer and by all accounts, he withheld the news from his fellow cast members and the public. 

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It is understood he received a stage three diagnosis for colon cancer in 2016 and despite the toll on his body, the star continued accepting work, promoted his films at red carpet events, conducted interviews and honoured his charity commitments. He died aged 43 in August 2020. The show must go on indeed.


And what a show!


The film is mostly set on a simmering hot afternoon in Chicago in the late 1920’s at a recording studio. Based on the play of the same name by the celebrated August Wilson, it is the only one of his titles that features queer characters. It is at the height of the Great Migration when 100 000 black Americans left the South for the cities of the North – among them, the Illinois capital.


The session would have made Ma Rainey among the first black artists to record her music. Such was the popularity of Rainey that the opening sequence is reminiscent of a plantation escape as an eager fan rushes in the dead of night, not to join the Underground Railroad, but to watch a performance of the star and her band.


From that her magnetism is clearly established and then the film progresses to the fateful afternoon in Chicago. We are teased in watching the band jostle and cajole each other in their own power struggles and plays for dominance whilst they and we, the audience, wait for Ma to arrive.

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These are men who dress immaculately. Even as they walk through working class white neighbourhoods, their very presence is a challenge and threat to the status quo. The tension is palpable when the band members take a simple stroll from a train station to the studio – one wrong move and all hell could break loose; no matter how snappily dressed, they are Negroes in Jim Crow’s segregationist white world.


Enter Ma Rainey. Viola Davis has that rare ability to transform and transcend the screen and doesn’t disappoint in this film. She gives a characteristic portrayal that contains rage and dignity and the power of being unapologetically authentic.  If the black men in the band are feeling marginalised and emasculated, what of a Negress who is proudly same gender loving, if not downright taunting with lyrics like, 

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends… 

They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men,

Wear my clothes just like a fan, talk to the gals just like any old man!” 

 This was 60 years before Civil Rights and Stonewall!


Revered and reviled. Her trumpeter Levee, played by Boseman, seeks to undermine her, both with the music and in trying to seduce her lover.  But Ma stands her ground with an uncompromising authority over all the men – her black band members and the white managers who need her talent to sell the songs she records.  

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She knows her music and her fans better than any of them because her heart is her compass. That is the only voice she listens to. Nobody will tell her what to sing, how to sing it and very clearly not how to live. She stares down the revulsion at her queerness by black folks and their jealousy of the wealth she displays.


For as long as she can perform she knows her power. As she says so eloquently, she knows that when they finally have what they want, “then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on. Ain’t got no use for me then!”


Until then she would demand R.E.S.P.E.C.T no matter how much it hurt. 


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