Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom movie review (2020)

Before the star’s arrival, Levee joins the group holding his new $10 pair of shoes, which were partially paid for by his winnings in a band card game the night before. The men shoot the breeze, often with a bit of tension, and at one point, the wind blows toward a story about a colored man who sold his soul to the Devil. The sale made him somewhat untouchable, allowing him to get away with murder and other, much smaller infractions that would easily have gotten him arrested or lynched. Wilson’s penchant for sprinkling symbolically supernatural elements into his plays gets an amusing, ironic tinge here—it seems the only way for a Black man to enjoy the same freedom as his White counterpart in the 1920’s is to broker a deal with Beelzebub. This story also informs us of Cutler’s extremely religious background, a key factor in the film’s most devastating sequence.

Eventually, Ma arrives, covered in greasepaint, pissed off about her car and lugging along Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), her latest side piece. Rainey made no attempts to hide her sexual enjoyment of women; in “Prove it on Me Blues,” she sang “went out last night, with a crowd of my friends. It must have been women, cuz I don’t like no mens.” Though Dussie Mae is way too flirty, the band members know she’s off limits. Everyone, except Levee, that is. Unlike the guy in that Satanic story, Ma doesn’t need to sell her soul to have power to throw around. All she needs to do is sell records. And while Irvin bears the brunt of her tantrums, little sympathy is afforded him because he’ll still get the sweeter end of the deal if he bears that abuse. “All they care about is my voice,” says Ma. So, why not make them earn it? “They hear it come out,” she says of White people listening to the blues, “but they don’t know how it got there.”

One of Ma’s requirements before she records “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is to have her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) do the spoken introduction to the song. Levee’s arrangement doesn’t have this feature—it’s a faster, more swingy number that correctly hints at the musical trends that will follow—but Ma predictably vetoes his input. The song is to be recorded as she performs it for her fans, primarily so Sylvester can earn some money for his input. This presents a problem that, for once, unites Levee and the others, but their protests are short-lived. Everybody knows whose Black Bottom it is, and what she says goes. Davis, in her most grandiose cinematic role, relishes the opportunity to be difficult, self-assured and dominant. Even in the quieter moments, her Ma Rainey fills up the room. It’s a delectably grand performance that reunites her with her “Get On Up” co-star.

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