Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Topping the Year Off


When you turn on the radio, each song carries a rich history. Genre, style, theme, it all came from somewhere. A huge chunk of that history is the rise of blues and the black musicians who created it. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by George C. Wolfe, takes an in-depth look at one of the genre’s trailblazers in a story of big dreams, interracial tensions, and tragedy. This film shows extreme artistry in the way the story and characters are written and developed. Through incredible performances and a powerful story, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom marries history, music, and character in a perfect storm of emotion that creates a three-dimensional story that only spans the timeframe of a single recording session.

The entire story of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place during one recording session as music producers, Mr. Irvin and Sturdyvant, attempt to finish and market Ma’s next big album. Ma, played by Viola Davis, is accompanied by her backup band, Toledo, Slow Drag, Cutler, and Levee, as well as her nephew, Sylvester, and young female companion, Dussie Mae. Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman, is a strong-willed, hot-headed trumpet player with dreams of making his own band and releasing his own music. Ma, who is very controlling over her style, often conflicts with Levee as well as the record producers and the other members of her band. She is a token diva with frequent demands and a stubborn attitude. Recurring tensions over race between the white producers and the musicians as well as conflicts in the characters’ pasts also come to light and set the story on a collision course with disaster. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of the most well-written, character-driven films to grace Netflix in a very long time. The most astounding part of the film is what it was able to achieve with character development in such a short amount of time. Without feeling rushed, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom brought to life an exquisite cast of dynamic characters through stellar writing and vivid performances. Not only were these characters able to carry a compelling plot, but they were also able to provide insightful perspective and commentary on social justice issues that have affected, and still affect, our country to this day. With moving monologues about the struggles of being an African-American in 1920s America and a beautifully chilling ending, the movie leaves its viewers with something to think about. That does not even begin to mention the amazing soundtrack this movie had. In telling the story of the making of a blues record, a good soundtrack is to be expected, but this one certainly had ear-worms at every turn.

Another notable point about this film is its dedication to Chadwick Boseman. Chadwick Boseman was an incredible actor who passed away in August of 2020 after a four-year battle with colon cancer. Some of his most notable roles were Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in Get On Up, and the titular role in  Black Panther. His performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is nothing short of Oscar-worthy, but being his last movie, the dedication of the film should primarily be a tribute to his ability to touch people’s lives both on and off screen.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise suffocating year. The film’s release and the last days of 2020 hit America hand-in-hand. As our world welcomes the new year and eagerly turns its sights away from the last, it is important to remember the highlights, this movie being one. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is chilling, poignant, and breath-taking, illuminating the struggles of a fight still being fought, all set to a bluesy soundtrack that will stick in your brain for days. This movie will forever serve as a reminder: a reminder of a battle being fought everyday for social justice, of the art that can come in times of pain, and of the life and career of a beloved actor gone too soon.