Friday, February 5, 2021

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (a movie review post)


This is not a free-use picture but, as far as a can tell, it's supposed to be usable for reviews.
Since this is a review, I'm using it.

Is there a way to legitimately talk about this film without dealing with the death of Chadwick Boseman? I don't think so. Boseman's performance was, of course, stellar. It would have been stellar for a healthy man. Chadwick Boseman was dying. Though, honestly, he did most of his work while receiving treatment for his cancer, and who knows for how long it was affecting him prior to 2016. He was an amazing talent by any standard but that he did it while also undergoing cancer treatment is just mind blowing.

On the surface, the conflict of the movie is between Levee (Boseman) and Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis), the conflict between the new and the old and those who refuse to change. [Look, I'm resisting the urge to point out that Ma Rainey and her refusal to change with the times is just like Republicans... oh, wait...] Also that Levee is flirting with Ma's girl, and Ma doesn't appreciate that, either. These are the conflicts that supply the emotional tension of the movie. But...

But before I go on, let's talk about Viola Davis. She was unrecognizable in this role. Ahead of seeing the movie, I had forgotten that she was in it and, so, wondered, more than once, as we were watching, who it was playing Ma Rainey. Thus I was surprised when we got to the credits to find out that it was Davis. She was amazing. The number of actors who can submerge into their roles so that you can't see the actor at all is very small, and most of those guys are fucking weird (Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Day-Lewis). Davis doesn't seem to suffer from any weirdness with her ability to... become.

What I'm saying here is that the acting in this film was extraordinary, and Davis and Boseman both deserve Oscars for their performances.

Though I don't think the film itself is Best Picture-worthy. Nomination worthy, certainly, but it's not quite Best Picture material, I don't think. Mostly because it's, basically, a filmed play. It's a very good play, but I'm pretty sure that when you turn a play into a movie that you should turn it into a movie and not film it as if it's a play. Maybe that's just me.

However, it does deal with an ongoing problem in American culture, the exploitation of the talent of African Americans for the benefit of fucking rich white men. That's the true conflict of the movie and part of Ma's resistance to change. She has achieved a slice of power within music culture and is desperate to retain that small amount of power she has. It's exemplified at the beginning of the movie when Ma's driver gets into a fender bender. The (white (do I really need to say it?)) police officer is ready to throw Ma in jail for her attitude: He doesn't know who she is. But Ma is "rescued" by her white agent, because the crash was in front of the recording studio, who exercises his whiteness on behalf of Ma, just so that Ma can then press him under her thumb with ridiculous demands. But she makes the studio a lot (a LOT, evidently) of money, so he's really responding to the money, not to any respect he has for Ma.

One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is the difference between the relationship that Ma has with the studio and the relationship that Levee has with it, because Levee wants to be the next big thing. And that's about all I can say about that without getting into spoilers. At any rate, it's definitely a movie worth watching. And I have to admit that I was more than a little skeptical about watching the movie to begin with. I'm not a blues fan, and the title... just isn't very inviting. Which is not to say that it's not appropriate, because the song is what the conflict is centered around. The performances alone make it more than worthwhile.

1 comment:

  1. Aw, Chadwick Boseman. One of the few times I've actually been saddened at a celebrity death.