Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Parent Guide
This is a masterclass in theatrical adaptation, high intensity acting, and writing.
Parent Movie Review
It’s the Roaring Twenties and blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) has brought her touring band to Chicago to record a new album. But not all is going to plan – tensions between Ma and her talented young horn player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman) have been building for days, and threaten to derail the entire deal. Were that not enough, Levee is determined to start trouble with the rest of the band and antagonizes them at every opportunity. Meanwhile, the record producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Ma’s manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), are finding Ma’s from her musical talents. Over the course of the recording session, things go from bad to worse…
This adaptation of August Wilson’s 1984 play never quite loses the feeling of the stage, which I think is a point in its favor. I always hate movies based on plays that bear no resemblance to their source material, and it’s hard to make a screenplay work on film that was designed to work on stage without keeping some of the conventions of theatre. That means long takes, dramatic monologues, and vibrant larger-than-life characters. In this case, these all work brilliantly, and the result is a captivating 90 minute drama.
Intriguing though it may be, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t a movie for everyone, specifically, children. Along with a heaping helping of cussing, there is a brief sex scene, and a good deal of dialogue which contains some very mature subject matter. While that dialogue is critical in building and developing these characters, it’s also about rape, lynching, and murder: hardly elementary school entertainment. Older teens, on the other hand, should be able to cope with just about everything in this film. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up being shown in schools at some point, either in English or Drama classes, as a companion to the original play.
There’s a lot to watch here: Viola Davis is as dynamic as I’ve ever seen her, and Boseman brings Levee a high-strung, determined intensity that makes his character shine in a work full of dramatic performances. The music is another standout, which is unsurprising – Ma Rainey is not a fictional construct but a real icon of the blues, and her music floats off the screen and all the way back to its roots in Georgia of the 1920s. This is a masterclass in theatrical adaptation, high-intensity acting, and screenwriting. It’s a shame neither the original author nor the lead actor can be here to see its success.Directed by George C Wolfe. Starring Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman. Running time: 94 minutes. Theatrical release December 18, 2020. Updated February 26, 2021
Watch the trailer for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Rating & Content Info
Why is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom rated R? Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is rated R by the MPAA for language, some sexual content and brief violence
Violence: There is a brief fistfight. A man is stabbed and killed. There is dialogue which describes sexual violence, violence against children, murder, and lynching. There is a car accident that results in an argument with the police.
Sexual Content: There is a brief sex scene between a man and woman which contains no nudity. Women flirt and one kisses the other on the neck. There is dialogue describing a brutal rape with multiple assailants. Some of the songs and dialogue contain sexual innuendo. There is mention of “whorehouses”.
Profanity: There are 46 racial slurs, six sexual expletives, 32 scatological curses, and occasional mild profanities and terms of deity.
Alcohol / Drug Use: Adult characters are seen smoking and sharing a flask which is said to contain bourbon. Songs mention “moonshine”.
Page last updated February 26, 2021
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Parents' Guide
What is the root of the tension between Levee and the other members of the band? What about with Ma Rainey? Why do you think Levee has the ambitions that he has? What in his past motivates his current behavior?
Ma Rainey is also a source of contention for the people around her. What is her position? Why does she make things so difficult for others? Do you think that her explanation makes sense?
You can listen to some of Ma Rainey’s recordings here.
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August Wilson’s work has been adapted before (and also with Viola Davis) in the form of 2016’s Fences. Giving Voice, released just last week and also available on Netflix, is a documentary exploring the August Wilson Monologue Competition, in which young actors compete for prizes and an opportunity to perform on Broadway.
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