Ma Rainey belts out the blues


“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” plays at the M.V. Film Center (streaming will not be available) on Friday, Dec. 11. Black Bottom refers to a low-lying Southern town dominated by Blacks and to a dance popular among them.

Starring Oscar-winning Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and the late Chadwick Boseman as talented but irresponsible trumpet player Levee, it’s a fictional film based on the legendary real-life singer. Adapted from a 1982 play by the late Pulitzer prizewinning August Wilson, the movie was directed by George C. Wolfe. Forty-four-year-old Boseman died of colon cancer in August, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was his last film.

Called the “Mother of the Blues,” the real Rainey — Davis is almost unrecognizable as her — was the first to include that genre of music in her playlist. Most of her singing is dubbed by Maxayn Lewis. The film focuses on her time in a recording studio with a backup band that includes Boseman as the trumpeter. Boseman’s breakout performance was as T’Challa in “Black Panther.” Branford Marsalis plays the music for the film.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” begins with two Black men racing through the woods — not to escape from white attackers, as might seem the case, but to line up and attend a Rainey concert. Nevertheless, it signals the film’s statements about the violent racism that characterized its 1927 era, reinforced by archival black-and-white shots of Blacks. Scenes of Rainey singing and the audience’s appreciation of it follow and set the stage for her powerful and popular renditions of classic Black blues.

After her portrayal of Rainey in her tour-de-force opening performance, Davis focuses less on her charm than her power. Wearing garish makeup, Rainey is a heavyset woman with a large backside and gold-capped teeth.

The film shifts to the shabby recording studio where Rainey carries on, demanding her agent get her three bottles of Coke. Rainey doesn’t seem to pay attention to it, but Levee seduces Rainey’s girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). After Rainey storms out of the studio, Levee takes the stage, bragging about his prowess and his efforts to create his own band. In one powerful scene, he recounts how he watched his mother’s rape, followed by his father’s revenge and subsequent murder. He follows this story with a bitter denunciation of God. Later he responds to band members, “Bad luck — I eat it every day.” It is just one of Boseman’s dramatic scenes that may earn him a posthumous Oscar.

Because the movie is set in a recording studio, it depends on dialogue, conversations among the backup band about racism, and Rainey’s interactions with her white agent and manager. “I don’t stand for no shit,” she announces, adding, “Otherwise, you’re just a dog in some alley.” In another scene that captures her dominance, she demands that her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) speak the introduction to her music until he gets it right. Eventually, Rainey tires of Levee’s braggadocio and fires him. What follows brings a shocking end to the film.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” does occasionally open up the static format of its theatrical adaptation, but it remains a vivid and telling film.

Information and tickets for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” are available at