EBGB's: 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
Ellis and Gareth discuss the recent Netflix film 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'. As you probably guessed, Ellis is EB and Gareth is GB.
EB: I’ve literally just finished watching Ma Rainey’s right now.
GB: It’s fresh!
EB: Yeah, taking it all in.
GB: I’m not gonna lie to you, I was quite drunk when I watched It yesterday. I just had some red wine and then I woke up this morning like “Oh, I was quite drunk yesterday.” That’s why I was so enthusiastic messaging you I think.
EB: You were like: “Yeah! It’s the best film ever!”
GB: So, initial thoughts?
EB: I think it’s absolutely brilliant. I think it’s a great play. I think Chadwick Boseman gives his strongest performance, he’s absolutely incredible. He had two big monologues, the first of which is really quite emotional. It was up until that point I thought “ah this is just a play.” I was struggling to see anything new, but then when they did the close-up on Chadwick Boseman as Levee and you saw all the emotion pouring from him I thought, this is why it’s relevant being on film, because you wouldn’t be able to see that close into a character in a play.
GB: Yeah, he was just unbelievable wasn’t he!? It just made it really sad that he’s not going to be around to do more of that. I feel like he was coming into the swing of things.
EB: And it added an emotional backbone, especially in the second speech when he’s shouting at God, it added a whole new perspective to it knowing the tragic passing that would follow once this film wrapped.
GB: It was definitely a play wasn’t it? There was no getting round it, you could tell all the way through that it was a play, bar a couple of pieces. But what do you think? Because I like that. But from the reviews I was reading, not everyone said that was a good thing.
EB: Yeah, I think it’s a brilliant text so why not bring it to the big screen…or the small screen because Covid. Whenever I see a play adaptation on film I want to see them add something extra, and I think they definitely did utilise that but because the main bulk of it takes place in that one room it captures the intimacy of sitting in a theatre where you’re sharing the same energy as the actors.
GB: I agree with you, the intimacy really came across. The thing about plays is they’re very text heavy, if you want to make a film it needs to be more visual because that’s the medium. So I guess they could’ve removed some of the text and portrayed some elements more visually, but then it wouldn’t have been the same film.
EB: I’d be interested to see what people who have seen or read the play think.
GB: Yeah! Everything that happened in the rehearsal room felt the most “play-like”. One thing that grates on me sometimes, now all films are filmed in 4K so there’s a sheen to films these days as it’s all digitally filmed. And, especially when it’s a period piece, that can look really bad; but I felt like this looked good. The colours were really nice and it wasn’t awkward or jarring to see it in 4K.
EB: I think there’s an element of that with Netflix. When you’re watching a Netflix original, it’s very clear that you’re watching a Netflix film. There were some shots, especially the ones outside where I could clearly tell it was a ‘Netflix film’. I got the same feel in the visuals from watching this, Extraction and The Trial of the Chicago 7. We should probably talk about Viola Davis who played Ma Rainey.
GB: She was great!
EB: I didn’t think about it until I’d finished it, but she was just this presence all the way through. Although the play’s called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and initially going in I thought it was going to be about her, actually it’s about the song. When you have the shot of Ma in the car at the end, after everything’s escalated and she says nothing, it shows that it was actually her that created all the tension. She just kind of arrives late as this massive energy and the way that she is around the rest of the band shows that she clearly values herself more than anyone else in the building. I think it’s done really elegantly so it’s not obvious but by the end I realised that that was maybe the intention.
GB: I think it says a lot about the symbolism of the play. There’s so much symbolism, especially in terms of Chadwick Boseman’s final outburst at the end. I didn’t really see that coming, and at first I was like…would that happen? But it’s not about that, it would happen in a play and it symbolises a lot of things beyond in terms of race issues and mental health, probably even more so than things like Joker which is quite in your face about mental health. But you could see that in Viola Davis’ performance, she was always hot for example so she symbolised quite a lot in the film. She was the presence that was changing everything and that’s what all the musicians have to put up with. It’s almost a day in the life of a studio.
EB: I’m glad you’ve brought up symbolism because I felt that was very apparent in his shoes. When Levee first comes in he’s bragging about his shoes and it was almost I felt, like he was showing off and then when Toledo (Glynn Turman) stands on his shoe that leads to the carnage, that is symbolic of how he’s been put in his place by the rest of the band, Ma Rainey and the guys at the recording studio.
GB: Toledo was another presence. That kind of symbolism is more reserved to plays I think.
EB: I think also, there’s really good use of linguistic reappropriation.
GB: Woah, sounds fancy.
EB: Yeah I’ve got my big words out. It’s basically a community or minority group reclaiming a word that is often used as derogatory language towards them. I felt like this didn’t dwell too much on the fact that they were all using the ’N word’ in particular and trying to show black communities using this language. That language was just part of it, it’s such a taboo topic but its use here was solid.
GB: I know what you mean, some of the quotes were really good and some of the pieces that Ma Rainey was on about with the blues, “White people don’t appreciate the blues like we do.” Basically saying we live the blues and we’re singing about our lives and our emotions and that creates the blues. I think it honestly shows what the black community’s views are or especially were, and how they saw the black and white divide. The way Levee talked about his experience with white people was a really interesting approach which I haven’t seen much in film.
EB: I think, especially in scenes where they’re playing music, the film is quite joyous. It’s showcasing a black community enjoying life and I feel like they’re the kind of films that are going to make a difference in cinema.
GB: Oh definitely, a huge difference.
EB: I thought it was extremely powerful as well showing a white band playing Levee’s song at the end. It touched me a bit.
GB: I think it made Levee’s actions make more sense. It showed that this white band were essentially taking Levee’s soul.
EB: There’s your symbolism!
GB: So, what star rating would you give it?
EB: For me, when I come away after watching a five star film, I’m just blown away for one reason or another and there was something lacking in this and I don’t know what it was.
GB: Well in my old star system, I’d have given it a 4.5, so because of that I’d have to say no more than 4. And the only reason I wouldn’t give it a 5 is because of the play thing I think. They could have maybe made it more visual.
EB: Yes, definitely. I don’t know what they could have done, I don’t know how I’d change it but I think 4 is the correct rating here.
GB: The whole 5 star thing makes me think that maybe I need to break down the barrier a little bit and stop being so picky.
EB: 5 stars should however be given to Chadwick Boseman. His portrayal of Levee is exceptional and this performance will go down in history.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is available now on Netflix