Arts & Leisure

“Ma Rainey” sheds light on us


VIOLA DAVIS (center) stars in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” along with Chadwick Boseman (at left).

By Jim Tortolano

History and culture are never as simple as some may believe. The nuances of relationships between the sexes, races and regions can be lost in the fog of rhetoric. How that has played out in America over the last century is underlined beautifully in the new film, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Based on the stage play by August Wilson (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ruben Santiago-Hudson), this story brings to stirring life the point at which jazz music is drawing black and white cultures together.

It’s 1927, the leading edge of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rigidly-segregated South to the somewhat more accommodating North. Jazz music has made a star out of Ma Rainey (superbly portrayed by Viola Davis). She and her band are in Chicago for a recording session for Ma, the “Mother of the Blues.”

Soon, a three-cornered struggle develops between and among Ma, the white management of the record company and new trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) over just how the songs should be performed.

The entire cast is excellent, but the star power here is clearly with Boseman and Davis. As Ma, she’s a woman who’s led a hard life but never bent to the will of others. She can’t be pushed around by the white managers, at one point interrupting the session to demand – as is in her contract – three “ice cold Coca Colas.”

As Levee, Boseman (giving a master class in acting in his last film performance) is a vastly talented musician trying to move the jazz form forward while concealing the tragic past that lights some of the fires of his barely-suppressed anger.

Director George Wolfe gives us a vividly real glimpse of a time and place when strong women – especially strong Black women – had to battle to make their way in a world where racism, sexism and even the tensions between males and females had to be heroes to survive and prosper.

Although the era is nearly a century ago, the scene has been repeated over and over as jazz gave way to rock ‘n’ roll and, later, hip-hop music, all sprung from the Black cultural scene.

But the central theme is not limited to one race or one aspect of life. It’s an American story about the complexities of progress and pride.  It may be set in 1927 Chicago, but I’m willing to bet it will travel to Los Angeles next spring for the Academy Awards.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (available on Netflix) is rated R for profanity, violence and sexuality.


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