I got my time comin’ to me.
It’s all there in the opening scene. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) belts “Deep Moaning Blues” to a full house in Georgia as her band accompanies from the back of the stage. Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) hit their notes with feeling, keenly watching the subtle yet damning chaos about to unfold. Not only is trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) angled to serenade young Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige)—Ma’s “girl”—while Cutler (Colman Domingo) shoots a disparaging, fatherly look of judgment, he also dares to carve out a solo that causes the spotlight to move attention from the “Mother of Blues” to this newcomer unabashedly upstaging his employer. It’s a brief rebellion quashed by a lyrical scream and audience roar, but the fallout to come is obvious.
All that’s missing is the white man figuring out a way to pull strings, profit, and beat down every last Black person in that club whether they’re performing, dancing, or listening from outside. They are there of course. We might not see their physical form, but director George C. Wolfe ensures we feel their presence in their absence with a quick visual journey towards the venue via two boys running through the woods as dogs growl in the distance. It doesn’t matter that the film takes place in 1927 or that we’re living in 2020. To see Black men and women having a good time creating art (whether music, sports, or oration) is to know the burden they carry upon their shoulders of centuries of persecution and torment.
That’s what playwright August Wilson sought to express in his Pittsburgh Cycle of plays for which Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one. He’s putting the Black experience on-stage in familiar yet devastating ways. And while what we see in that concert scene is Ma pushing back against a potential usurper in a way that has her stifling his creativity in order to enforce her right and power to place her own first, the reasons aren’t plainly jealousy, ego, or respect. No, the real reasons stem from the people pitting their differing styles and generations into a battle when a partnership could be so much more fruitful. It’s the record executives, recording studios, and managers. It’s the men footing the bill who know sowing animosity increases their bottom line.
The dichotomy is laid out once we move from Georgia to Chicago—from Ma’s backyard to that of the Irvins (Jeremy Shamos as her manager) and Sturdyvants (Jonny Coyne‘s studio operator). Wolfe and Wilson (as adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) show us Cutler, Toledo, and Slow Drag walking the streets with their instruments to make certain they arrive on time as the white Chicagoans stare daggers. They play to make a paycheck. They smile at everyone, keep their heads down, and let Ma fight her fights knowing she has their backs. Levee contrastingly has larger aspirations. He seeks stardom of his own and is conscious of the fact he has the talent to achieve it. He plays for the music and the dream of stewarding it into the future.
And then there’s Ma. She may arrive later than Levee (who’s late himself), but she’s not “late.” She sets the time. Is she a diva? Yes. Do the Black residents at her hotel stare at her like the white citizens stared down the band? Yes. But she owns it because she sings her music to survive. It’s an extension of her soul and the one thing in White America’s eyes that gives her value. So she flaunts it not because she enjoys causing a commotion or being dramatic, but because it’s the only way she can be heard in the spaces between her voice being recorded and their checks cashing. Ma doesn’t need a Coca-Cola to sing. She needs it to remind her oppressors who’s truly in charge.
Watching Davis embody this character to her very bones is an unquestionable feat of genius. She’s simultaneously formidable and vulnerable. Her Ma glares with dead eyes at those who dare question her demands and yet we feel the history she’s endured to cultivate that persona in order to preserve her autonomy no matter the consequences it has on her reputation. She’ll jump down anyone’s throat at the drop of a hat, but she’ll also defend you with her heart and soul if you deserve it. So while she is using her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) as a pawn in her latest power play against Sturdyvant, she’s also protecting him with her fierce love and compassion. That’s what she does. Ma gives young Black men an opportunity to shine.
It’s what she also gave Levee and why it’s so disappointing he cannot appreciate it in his mind and actions like he so obviously does in his heart. But it’s not his fault—not when men like Sturdyvant whisper in his ear that he’s better than Ma. They’re toying with his fantasy by positioning themselves as his saviors and yet we (as well as Cutler and the boys) know what’s really happening. How can Levee see it for himself, though, unless they shed their wool and reveal themselves as wolves? How can he understand that the ribbing Toledo gives him is in search of discovering humility rather than provoking anger? Only upon realizing the rage Levee possesses beneath his music’s grace do we recognize it’s already too late.
Wolfe retains a lot of Wilson’s play’s theatricality in this cinematic rendition and it’s all to its immense strength. The use of a single locale doubling as sanctuary and prison (Levee’s constant, involuntary attempts to open a basement door is unforgettable even before discovering what’s on the other side) is resonant and his cast’s ability to go for broke in ways that shift collective laughter to slack-jawed reverence at the latest harrowing story told with heartfelt pain reveals the true weight of their words. And the parallels between Ma and Levee are forever focused through crosscuts and blocking—two versions of the same coin at different stages of their lives. Ma’s cold nature is the defense mechanism that protects her from the betrayal Levee is about to suffer.
They prove the film’s beating heart as a result. Domingo and Turman shine bright too, but Davis and especially Boseman are on a whole other level—almost as though the latter knew this would be his final curtain call and thus had to give everything he had left. Ma and Levee exist in two worlds simultaneously without a single soul to trust in either thanks to everyone around them transforming into vultures circling their prey. And when someone tells them their gift has come from God, what do you expect their response will be? This gift that puts a target on their backs? This gift that opportunists leech off of for pennies on the dollar? That’s not their God. That’s White America’s God. He turns a profit too.
 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020): (L to R), Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Colman Domingo as Cutler, Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, and Glynn Turman as Toldeo. Cr. David Lee / Netflix
 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020): (L to R), Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, Colman Domingo as Cutler., Cr. David Lee / Netflix
 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020): Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. Cr. David Lee / Netflix