Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

Pros: Amazing performance by Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis; fantastic dialogues that sound like blank verse; the story of one almost ordinary day in the life of blacks in the USA in the 20s. last century; costumes and soundtrack Cons: This is a very intimate story with an ambiguous ending Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom / “Ma Rainey Black Bottom”

Drama genre
Directed by George C. Woolf
Cast: Viola Davis (Ma Rainey), Chadwick Boseman (Livy Green), Colman Domingo (Cutler), Glynn Thurman (Toledo), Michael Potts (Slow Drag), Jeremy Shamos (Irwin), Johnny Coyne (Mr. Sturdivant), Taylor Page (Dassi May), Dushan Brown (Sylvester) and others.
Escape Artists Studios, Mundy Lane, Netflix
Release year 2020
Site IMDb

Let’s start with the title. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the title of a popular song that was released in the 1920s. of the last century was performed by the “Queen of the Blues” Ma Rainey. Here Ma Rainey is the name of the singer, and Black Bottom is the name of a dance that originated among African Americans and became insanely popular just in 1927, when the events of the film take place. Ma Rainey is one of the first black performers to have their performances recorded. The film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tells the somewhat embellished story of one such recording, by and large, it is a cast of an almost ordinary day in the life of the singer and members of her ensemble.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an adaptation of the 1984 play of the same name by American playwright August Wilson. It is part of the author’s so-called Pittsburgh Cycle, consisting of ten works exploring the lives of Americans of color in various decades of the 20th century. Two plays in the cycle, Fences (1985) and The Piano Lesson (1987), won Wilson the Pulitzer Prize for Playwriting.


The idea to film all of Wilson’s plays came to Denzel Washington, who decided to become the producer of this project. He agreed on distribution with HBO, but ultimately in June 2019 the project moved to Netflix, and the shooting itself took place in July-August 2019. Since we have a play in front of us, all of its events take place, in fact, in one location, and several scenes on the streets of Chicago in 1927 are filmed in a pavilion and are 90% CGI. At the time of filming, Chadwick Boseman was already seriously ill and in severe pain, but no one on the set was even aware of this.

According to the plot of the film, Ma Rainey arrives at the Paramount Records studio in Chicago on a hot summer day in order to record several songs. It was winter in Wilson’s play, but the change of seasons added some interesting lighting and some funny scenes. Ma Rainey at the time of recording is still a very popular singer, but she is under pressure from young artists, the changes scare her. And then there is the young trumpeter of her ensemble, Livy Green, who is trying to draw attention to herself by inserting solo improvisations into the songs and insisting on recording his arrangement of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And besides, Livy is trying to flirt with Dassi Mae, Ma Rainey’s girlfriend (the homosexual motive is not a tribute to the modern agenda, some of Ma Rainey’s songs have a clearly lesbian connotation). Obviously, the conflict between the old and the new will not end in anything good.


However, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not only about the blues and the creative confrontation between the two artists. Through everyday scenes, dialogues and monologues of characters, the author tries to convey the atmosphere that prevailed in Chicago in the 20s, to tell about the life of blacks in that period. Here it is worth understanding that literally ten years before the events of the film, the so-called Great Migration of blacks from the agricultural Southern states to the North began. In the 1910-30s. more than 1.5 million African Americans have changed their place of residence, a very significant figure even in our times. In search of a good life, thousands of people traveled half the country to understand that their situation in the North is not very different from what it was in the South.

Since Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a film adaptation of a dramatic work, there is not much action here and everything is tied to dialogue. A great way to bring out the actor’s talent, especially since the dialogue in the film is just brilliant. August Wilson has always been praised for his musical lyrics, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom his dialogue, set to background music and spoken in a southern, typical black American accent, swallowing vowels and merging words into one, becomes literally blank verse. Fascinating, really some kind of blues sound. That is why we highly recommend watching this film with the original track and subtitles, the dialogues are worth it, believe me.


And while the film is about Ma Rainey, superbly played by Viola Davis, most of the screen time will be Chadwick Boseman’s character, trumpeter Livy Green. Very emotional, impatient, dreaming of success right here and now, the young man carries within himself a severe childhood trauma. And when at the end of the film his music is taken away from him, he breaks and falls to the very bottom. There is no way out, and the locked door leading to nowhere through which Livy tries to break through the entire film is an obvious symbol of black life in pre-war America.

The ending, which, it seems, did not portend anything, may seem somewhat far-fetched and ambiguous, on the other hand, it is quite logical. Take away hope from a man, and he becomes capable of any follies.


As I wrote at the very beginning, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is worth watching if only for the performance of Chadwick Boseman. He gave this role, it seems, all of himself, lived it, suffered it to the end, played it like it was the last time. This is a truly fantastic performance, undoubtedly the best in the actor’s career, and it may well earn him a posthumous Oscar.

PS Simultaneously with the film itself, the documentary Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A Legacy Brought to Screen was released on Netflix, telling about the filming of the film, about Ma Rainey herself and containing interviews with the cast and crew members. Recommended.


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is worth watching if only for Chadwick Boseman, he played fantastic here

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