“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will likely be known down the road as the final Chadwick Boseman performance. As it stands, it will very likely bring a posthumous Oscar Boseman’s way, and a deserved one based on what I’ve seen so far this year.
But besides the final showcase for Chadwick Boseman’s talents is an August Wilson story based on one of rock and roll’s oldest debates. That is, the one where people like Elvis popularized songs and sounds that were already recorded by Black artists. At that point, someone like Elvis will be hailed as a genius when all he did was make music that was already excellent more socially acceptable. This is otherwise known as cultural appropriation.
Elvis , of course, didn’t JUST copy other artists. Obviously, he had one of the greatest voices and possessed some of the most notable on-stage charisma anyone’s seen. He was, in fact, a great artist in his own right. I’m a big fan, so no, all you Elvis fans, I’m not bashing the what the man did.
That being said, many white artists of the 1950s bit off a lot from Black artists from the 1930s and 1940s. Then it was mass produced so that white teenagers could consume it without everyone getting really mad.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” does approach this topic in its final moments, as the final frames show Boseman’s character’s song getting appropriated for a white, big band-loving audience. There is even more commentary about the exploitation of Black talent from that era in the film, but the starkest example comes at this bitter end.
As you can see, I’m hardly shying away from giving away at least a portion of the film’s resolution, and that’s by design. I could see the film being very challenging for some audiences, not only because the writing is honestly and rightfully critical, but also because I could see some people getting the complete wrong impression from the film. Specifically, Ma Rainey herself is really unlikable, and, even considering the environment, goes above and beyond to be totally unreasonable.
I think much of the film hinges on how willing you are to sympathize with the two lead characters, and Ma might be too much to handle for many. I still got something from the film, but it wasn’t any kind of revelation. It’s something of a middling effort that will only really convince the most receptive viewer. Anything less may result in more damage than good.
Sam Zavada is a copy editor with The Standard-Speaker in Hazleton. He previously served as the news clerk at The Standard-Speaker, working with the obituaries and the community and lifestyle pages. Sam’s work in print dates back to his time at King’s College, where he spent two years as the editor in chief of the school’s newspaper, The Crown. Earlier in his time with The Crown, he worked as a staff writer and the entertainment manager. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.