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‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ passed me by - not sure why? Maybe the volume of movies and books that surfaced during Covid distracted from me from a film I only watched earlier this week. The images still remain vivid.

Viola Davis plays legendary Blues singer Ma Rainey, whose voice, in the studio or street commands compliance from men of any colour. The lengthy opening banter by the boys in the band is the foundation for all that follows as the volcano slowly heats up. Levee, the horn player (Chadwick Boseman - now dec'd) the male diva, cautiously challenges Ma Rainey and the mercury rises.

The film felt like a stage play which the credits confirmed. Confining almost the entire story to the studio and basement injects greater intensity into the drama.

The dialogue is rich with symbols, light and darkness. Levee’s new shoes are pivotal in the plot. Black slaves were forbidden to wear shoes to prevent them running away. The negro spiritual, ‘All God’s Chillun Got Shoes’ was their longing and anticipation in heaven. Levee loves his new shoes.

Frequent twists in the story hit me like blows from a sledgehammer, catching me off-guard. Chadwick Boseman knew he was dying from cancer and I suspect his sizzling emotion comes from a place deep within, beyond the reach of his usual outstanding acting ability.

You will not easily forget the images of this raw slice of life from a dilapidated Chicago recording studio in 1927, highlighting the injustices of black Americans.


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