A sweltering summer day in Chicago, 1927. The “Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her four-piece band gather at a recording studio. They perform a selection of her biggest hits, including the titular Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. But in the claustrophobic space of the rehearsal room, upstart cornetist Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final role before his death) aggravates the pre-existing tensions between new and old, black and white, and the egos in the band. And the day’s recording comes at a high cost. 

The History Behind the Music

In order to understand Ma Rainey, it’s necessary to understand the blues— and further still, to understand the history of the blues. In encyclopedic terms, it’s a form of folk music created by African Americans at the beginning of the 20th century. It has its origins in the South and then brought up to the North during the Great Migration. But the blues is defined by more than a specific structure or harmonic progression. As Denzel Washington, producer of Ma Rainey, says in its accompanying documentary, “It’s our history, it’s our pain, it’s our escape, it’s our desire for better, it’s a way of expressing our love for ourselves and each other, and recognizing those that came before us and what they went through.”

The blues is a defiant validation of African American history in the face of a white power structure that would rather erase it. 

Roots in the Theater

These are the underlying themes that find their way into the four walls of the recording studio, lending what is essentially a chamber drama historical breadth and complexity. Adapted from a theater play by August Wilson (whose play Fences was also turned into a film by Washington in 2016), Ma Rainey is suited to the skill set of its director George C. Wolfe, who established himself directing theater pieces for the likes of Tony Kushner.

Minimal but stylized camerawork, costuming, and set design give space to passionate performances. Boseman and Viola Davis both acting as incongruous leads– much as their characters do in the band. Ma Rainey’s domain is the South, where she has influence and status in her community; the North for her means an exhausting battle of wills with the white men who wish to exploit her. She’s at the end of her career, threatened by rival Bessie Smith, as well as the simple fact of changing tastes. Levee represents those changing tastes. For him, the North is the promise of a better life. An escape from the oppression of Jim Crow and his own past trauma. And he’s still naive enough to think he can make good on that promise. 

“White people don’t understand about the blues,” says Ma in the film. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is, to use her own words, about how the blues got there: about the history of the people that brought it, and about the history of each musician that plays it.