A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a 1920s-set story about the deep scars, some literal, that racism leaves on the Black community and marks popular actor Chadwick Boseman's last film. Boseman stars in some of the movie's most emotionally intense scenes, which include several in which characters recall the racist terror and trauma that Black people have experienced. Some characters are infuriated, while others seem resigned as they talk about their community's fate and future and the individual treatment they've received. Characters fight, and one is stabbed to death. There's one sex scene and some flirtation between a man and a woman, glimpses of a woman's thighs, and another flirtatious scene between two women. Characters smoke and drink, and their language includes regular use of the "N" word, plus swear words like "f--k," "motherf----r," "s--t," "bulls--t," "damn," "p---y," and more.
- Parents say
- Kids say
Chadwick Boseman’s best, and final, performance deserves Oscar attention. It’s also the best part of this film.
What's the story?
Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is considered the "Mother of the Blues" in the United States in the 1920s in MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM. Making her way north, like many other Black people of the time, she's about to record a new album at a Chicago studio with her band, including Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and newcomer Levee (Chadwick Boseman), an ambitious young musician who wants to steal Ma's spotlight. Tensions run high as Ma arrives late to the studio after a minor fender bender, bringing along her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), whom she insists be given a spoken line on the recording despite his stammer, and her girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), whom Levee's got his eye on, too. Ma starts making other demands on exasperated studio owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), while the musicians start arguing amongst themselves.
Is it any good?
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a tough film made more emotionally intense by the actors' soulful performances and the hard truths at the core of the story. Even if you didn't know the script was based on an August Wilson play, you could guess at the film's theatrical roots in its character focus, dialogue-heavy scenes, and stagy settings (the few outdoor scenes, particularly Chicago's city streets, seem to look purposefully like sets). The closed spaces, so muggy-hot that the characters are sweating, feel symbolically restrictive, a manifestation of the oppression the Black characters have experienced all their lives. Their rage and weariness materialize especially in Ma Rainey and Levee. In one scene, Levee breaks down a door only to find himself at the bottom of an enclosed brick patio, with no way out.
Davis brings a simmering resentment to her Ma Rainey. One smoldering look through her smeared, maudlin makeup sends the men around her scampering. It comes as a bit of a shock to see photos over the end credits of a smiling, clean-faced real-life Ma Rainey. Meanwhile, Boseman's final film before his untimely death from cancer shows the full range of his acting prowess. His Levee is at turns charming, sorrowful, boastful, angry, and violent. The solid character actors playing the musicians around him all have their own starring moments, but they seem mostly there to react to Boseman. Levee is a talented, flawed, and traumatized young man who deeply deserves a better past and future than the ones he's got, and Boseman's gifted performance, exuding a mix of youthful energy, vulnerability, and fury, brings this to tragic life.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the impact of racism on the characters in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. How has each of the main characters experienced racism, and how do those experiences inform their behavior and attitudes?
The Tony Award-winning play this film is based on is part of a cycle of 10 plays about the African American experience covering the 10 decades of the last century. Have you seen or read any other plays by August Wilson?
Ma Rainey was a real blues singer. Where can you go to find more information about her?
Photographs, headlines, and advertisements at the beginning of the movie reflect on many Black people's migration to the North, "bound for the promised land," in the 1920s. Where else do you detect a North-South divide in this story? How about a generational divide between characters?
- On DVD or streaming: December 18, 2020
- Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo
- Director: George C. Wolfe
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History, Music and Sing-Along
- Run time: 94 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language, some sexual content and brief violence
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award, Golden Globe
- Last updated: April 25, 2021
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