by Sam Acosta
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”]
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” an adaptation of August Wilson’s stage play, made me feel the emotion of almost every character and left me thinking about its themes long after I watched it. Director George C. Wolfe brings together an amazing cast, with every actor and actress playing their roles perfectly and making each character memorable.
However, this movie also left me feeling conflicted. Without question, I resonated with the film emotionally and understood its themes. The intertwining stories of 1920s blues sensation Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and up-and-coming trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) gave the film a strong, steady pace that kept me engaged throughout its one-and-a-half-hour runtime.
Rainey’s pride in her successful musical career and Levee’s ambition to gain the same recognition lead the two big personalities to butt heads frequently. These heated confrontations gradually reveal the scars they both carry from the racial discrimination they’ve experienced throughout their lives. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Levee reveals his tragic past to fellow musicians Cutler, Toledo, and Slow Drag, leading to a fiery argument with Cutler over the existence of God. The emotional pull of this scene is undeniably strong.
What made me feel conflicted is the film’s resolution and ending. While the main conflict of recording Ma’s latest album is eventually resolved, the ending also includes Levee being fired after questioning Ma’s methods. On top of that, the record deal that he spends the entire film boasting about is taken away from him, and his songs end up in the hands of a man who betrayed him earlier in the film.
In a blind rage fueled by his misfortunate, Levee ends up killing Toledo after he accidentally scuffs Levee’s brand-new shoes. The film ends with Levee holding Toledo’s dead body in his arms as the trumpeter’s original songs are given to an all-White band to be recorded and sold without his involvement or benefit.
This ending is incredibly abrupt and disheartening. While it’s not unlike Levee to become violent (as he does this earlier in the film), such a dramatic turn feels unearned when compared to the deeply resonant emotional beats throughout the rest of the film. Levee’s flash of rage at the end feels so sudden and shallow that I felt like I was missing some deeper context that the film fails to give. Maybe if we were allowed to see Levee truly grasp the atrocity of what he’s just done, the moment would feel more powerful.
Instead, we are left not knowing what happens afterward besides Levee’s precious songs being stolen. That is what makes me feel so conflicted. There is so much beauty, talent, and passion to be admired in this film, yet this major misstep of an ending (along with some minor pacing issues sprinkled throughout) casts an undeniable shadow over it all.
For those considering whether to watch this film or not, I would suggest giving it a try. This film serves as a very crucial reminder of the necessity of racial equality and gets that point across in a compelling, tasteful way. Also, as the final film starring Chadwick Boseman (who passed away suddenly back in August), it is moving to watch the end of this incredibly talented and accomplished actor’s career.
That said, this film includes some coarse language and touches on some mature themes, so I would recommend that any readers who wish to see it research that beforehand to determine if this film is right for them. Regardless, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is not something that you should simply pass on. Despite its flaws, it is still an emotionally powerful story and one that you might want (or need) to see.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is now streaming on Netflix.
Sam Acosta is a sophomore Theatre Comprehensive Major and an A&E writer for Cedars. He likes spending his time watching movies, drinking Dr. Pepper, and writing plays.