Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Review

Worth seeing: for the stellar final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman of an ambitious trumpeter, held back by his more famous boss
Director:George C Wolfe
Featuring:Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Colman Domingo, Dusan Brown, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne, Joshua Harto, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige
Length:94 minutes
Released:18th December 2020


In late 1920s Chicago, one of the leading blues singers, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is about to record one of her most famous songs at an independent studio.

Her regular back-up band has a new member – but trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) is more interested in building his own career than helping Ma Rainey’s.

As they’re waiting for the customary late arrival of the big star, the backing musicians argue over which version of the song to rehearse – Ma Rainey’s preference or Levee’s own arrangement.

When Ma Rainey arrives, she settles that one – her own – but she insists that her nephew records the introduction – despite his stammer.

Rivalries come to the fore as Ma Rainey and her backing musicians try to create a hit.


Four years after Denzel Washington brought August Wilson’s play Fences to the screen, he’s produced an adaptation of another of Wilson’s works, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – named for the real-life blues star and one of the songs that made her name.

While there’s music on screen, this film comes alive, but when the characters are talking – or shouting – rather than singing and playing – this film just doesn’t go anywhere.

Set in real time, essentially in two locations – the studio upstairs and the rehearsal room in the basement – and with only a handful of characters of note – Ma Rainey, Levee, the other three band members and two white producers – the play doesn’t seem to have progressed much from stage to screen.

Watching characters striding purposefully around a room, pontificating about everything from music and religion to shoes, makes you feel like you’d have got a better feel for the work at the theatre.

The narrative is, at its heart, a film about status; Ma Rainey – a middle-aged black-woman in 1920s Chicago – is trying to show the white producers who’s boss; Levee is trying to persuade his fellow musicians that unlike them, he’s talented enough to be leading his own band.

But this, ultimately, leads to the two central characters coming across as being self-important, pompous souls you might want to listen to performing for five minutes, but you wouldn’t want to spend an hour and a half with, in the confined space of a studio. The film will leave you emotionally cold but musically enriched.

Viola Davis – an Oscar winner for Fences – is somewhere between Pantomime Dame and Pantomime Villain here, but Chadwick Boseman, in his final screen role before his death from cancer in the summer, is a magnetic presence, who steals the screen in almost every scene. What he only might have been able to achieve.

But while you can’t take your eyes off him, he comes across as a conceited, supercilious, entitled dreamer and when a series of events, on this fateful day, conspire to end any hope he might have of fame, while you might have had some sympathy for him earlier on, it disappears in a flash.

You’ll wish you could spend more time with Chadwick Boseman – but you’ll be glad you don’t have to spend any more time with Levee.