Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was released this week amid great fanfare for what will be the final film appearance of the late respected actor Chadwick Boseman.
Based upon the Tony-nominated play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a fictionalized account of real-life blues singer Ma Rainey’s recording of her song “Black Bottom” at a white Chicago recording studio during the 1920s. Boseman plays Levee – an opinionated, self-promoting trumpet player in Rainey’s band.
Boseman certainly is effective in his role. He is a very solid actor, turning in a very solid performance. Depending on what other actors he is up against, Boseman will probably win a posthumous Academy Award for his performance. I, myself, would not characterize Boseman’s performance as Oscar-worthy, but I did enjoy it.
However, there is an Oscar-worthy performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – that being Viola Davis’ characterization of the title character: Ma Rainey. Billing herself as “the Mother of the Blues”, Rainey is part Delta Blues Diva, part Voodoo Priestess. From her stilted walk from corns on her feet, to the lusty delivery of her raspy voice, to the signs of the good life showing round her middle – Davis quite literally transformed into another person. A real person requiring historical accuracy.
The true brilliance of the character, and in Davis’ performance, is Ma Rainey’s sense of entitlement despite being a black woman in a white man’s world. You can see the fire in Davis’ eyes as her Ma Rainey doesn’t think twice about verbally castrating affluent white men, police even. For the times, she is as rich as a black woman could possibly be, with people – even white people – clamoring to her beck and call. There is no fight she will back down from. It is her way. Always.
If you look at a picture of the 55-year-old actress now, you would hardly recognize her as the woman playing Rainey in the film. Just as Joaquin Phoenix lost ample weight to affect the physical appearance aspect of his Oscar-winning characterization in 2019’s film Joker, Davis put on ample weight to play the Bayou Diva – weighing in near 200 pounds in the film. Costumer Ann Roth added additional padding to accentuate the actual weight Davis put on for the role. The real Ma Rainey was closer to 300 pounds in size.
The movie deals with such important issues as race, religion, and the historic exploitation of black recording artists. The play upon which the movie is based debuted on Broadway in 1984 and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best American Play. Denzel Washington, a long-time advocate of Boseman, produced the film adaptation for Netflix.
If Boseman wins the Oscar, it will be a testament not only to fine performance in this film, but for his body of work that brought him to this final point in his career. I expect Davis to win in the Best Actress category for her tour de force performance.
Peace. Love Trust.
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