Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Write this down. Chadwick Bozeman wins a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar at next year’s gala event.

Set in Chicago in 1927, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom captures the meaning of being an African-American in the decades following the Civil War.  Directed by George C. Wolfe and based on August Wilson’s 1982 play, the film has the same dark emotional content as Fences (2016), Wilson’s other play taken to the screen.

The entire movie, which runs a few minutes over 1½ hours, takes place in a Chicago recording studio run by a white owner (Jonathan Coyne) more interested in profit than race relations. Ma, played in an over-powering style by the glorious Viola Davis, is a woman filled with piss and vinegar whose motto is “My way or the highway.”

Ma arrives late to join her talented band, four black men played in mesmerizing style by Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, and the above-mentioned Mr. Bozeman. They are there to make a little cash by supporting Ma as she records several songs.

Raised in Alabama, Ma knows how to command attention.  Overweight with a mouthful of gold teeth, Ms. Davis gives an electric performance as a singer who captures post slavery music known as the Blues that will leave you astonished. She also will likely receive an Oscar nomination.

But it is the performance of Bozeman as the trumpet player Levee that elevates this film into an artistic orbit.  Just as he did in Black Panther (2018); Get On Up (2014) where he played James Brown; his role as Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013); and as Thurgood Marshall in Marshall (2017), Boseman captures your attention from the beginning of the movie to its tragic end.

All Levee wants is a band to record music he has composed, and he knows how to appeal to a white audience.  His tragic story of growing up in the Jim Crowe South will leave you matching the tears flowing down his cheeks.

This is a film about the cost of being black in a country that embraced segregation. Ma and Levee were fighting to break through that barrier, but some would pay a price that would leave many crushed by boots worn by white Americans.