Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an appropriate film to end 2020 with for two reasons. One of these reasons was as applicable in 1982, when the play debuted, as it sadly is now but the other is all ours (and neither are related to the pandemic).
The film gives a fictional account of the recording of an album by 1920 blues singer Ma Rainey, the title coming from one of her most famous songs. In between takes Ma and her band; bassist Slow Drag, pianist Toledo, trombonist/guitar player Cutler and hotheaded trumpeter Levee tease and banter with one another, tensions rising and falling as they do.
Ma is the title character but Levee is probably the lead, he certainly feels like the centre of the narrative in this adaptation at least. The thing about Levee is that he’s angry and is ready to take on the world if he needs to. This makes him pushy, selfish and objectionable and he is by no means guilt free in generating negative reactions in those around him. What the play shows though is that Levee and his antagonistic attitudes are the product of growing up black in America. I don’t know if this was playwright August Wilson’s intention but it seems to me that he is saying not to write off or blame men like this. They may not be innocent but they are an inevitable result of how they and those around them are treated by society. This can apply to someone of any background but here the colour of the guy’s skin is relevant as there are many that do dismiss combative black men, at least partly because they are black men. This was the case in the 1920s when the story is set, it was the case in the 80s when it was written and it is the case in 2020 when so many people have spoken of George Floyd as a man who ‘must have done something wrong’. That was clearly always missing the point but actually what this film highlights is that there is another point that this misses too; that Floyd’s life may have been destroyed by racism even before it was ended by it. By accident or by design, this has been a great year for films connected to Black Lives Matter with Queen & Slim, Lovers Rock, Just Mercy, Rocks and Da 5 Bloods, and this caps them off perfectly.
The other reason why Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the right movie to mark the end of this year is because this was the year we lost Chadwick Boseman and this is his last performance. Even with everything else that has gone on, 2020 has been partially defined by Bozeman’s passing. It isn’t just that he was a superb actor who was really only just starting to realise his incredible potential but this film does showcase this like nothing else. He is excellent here and while the Oscar may be guaranteed at least partly because of his death, this is absolutely an award worthy performance and most certainly his best. His Levee is incomparable to his other roles.
Of course Boseman was also becoming a bit of an icon. He played a number of black heroes; Thurgood Marshall, James Brown, Jackie Robinson and of course T’Challa, and in doing so became one himself. Other actors have died young and been immortalised as a result; Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean but few who stood for anything like Boseman did. He was not struck down by living his life recklessly either. Boseman died of cancer in a year where disease has crippled the whole world and showed a strength and dignity with it that is such as inspiration. He shows incredible energy in this film yet he was recovering from surgery and undergoing chemotherapy while shooting it.
So, 2020 has sucked because too many voices have fallen silent but with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom one of those voices has left us with an important message that needs to be heard.
Watch it on Netflix now.