MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM*CUT TO THE CHASE*
NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Alex
In 1927 in Barnesville, Georgia, famous singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) – also known as the “Mother of Blues”, performs for an adoring crowd. She and her band continue touring, selling out everywhere. Eventually, they arrive in Chicago, where Ma’s manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) has booked their usual recording studio for Ma to record some new album. Mel (Johnny Coyne), the owner of the studio, is worried since he sees Ma as a diva with constant demands.
Band members Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) make their way to the studio, but Mel is annoyed Ma isn’t there yet. Levee thinks he’s a great songwriter and is young and confident, spending his time writing his own music while the rest of the band demand he rehearse. He tells them he’s working on music for Mel. Cutler, the de facto leader, demands Levee play the songs as he knows them, but Levee insists that Irvin wants to use his version of the song, which Irvin confirms.
The band plays Irvin’s version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. The group teases the older Toledo, who talks to them about being a black man in America and what they need to do to improve their standing. Levee thinks that life is just about having a good time. Slow Drag tells them how he once knew a man who sold his soul to the devil. Levee doesn’t believe in bad luck or anything like that, which annoys Cutler, who thinks he’s a young fool.
Ma Rainey is on the way to the recording studio with her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylor Paige), driven by Ma’s nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). Sylvester accidentally rear-ends another car. Ma gets in an altercation with the other driver and the police get involved, claiming Ma assaulted the other driver. Ma insists he fell and that she didn’t touch him. Irvin intervenes, bribing the police officer, freeing Ma to come and begin the recording session.
Mel is fed up with Ma’s antics, but Irvin insists he has it under control. At the studio, Ma flirts with Dussie and tells her and Sylvester they’ll get them fresh new clothes. Ma tells Sylvester she’s gotten him a job playing with the band and he can send the money back home to his mother. Ma hears the band rehearsing Levee’s version of “Black Bottom” and says she refuses to let Levee ruin her song. Irvin says people want to be able to dance and the new way will work better, but Ma says it’s her song, not Levee’s. She yells at Irvin and says Sylvester will be doing the intro.
Ma goes to the band, introduces Sylvester, and tells the band in no uncertain terms that “Black Bottom” will be done the old way, making Cutler laugh, since he told Levee that what Ma says is the only thing that matters. Levee wants to quit over this, but the band just laughs as Cutler teaches Sylvester how to do the opening – a spoken word section. They are shocked when it turns out Sylvester has an extremely pronounced stutter, cracking Levee up – he’s curious to see how Cutler is going to fix that.
The band practices, with Levee sitting out saying he’s going to get his own band to play the song right – until Mel comes in to ask Levee if he’s finished the song he was working on for him, and Mel says sometime later he’ll get to Levee’s originals. The band mocks Levee for instantly being subservient to Mel. Levee gets angry, saying he isn’t scared of white men – he says when he was eight years old a gang of white men came into his house and raped his mother. He grabbed a knife and tried to fight back, but one of them got the knife and slashed him across the chest.
Levee shows them his massive scar, and says when his father returned, sold his farm to one of the rapists, moved the family out of town, then returned to kill the men who did it – he killed four of them before they killed him. Levee says he learned from his father how to deal with white men – he knows how to smile and say “yes sir” but then do what he needs to do. The band is shocked by this horrific story. Toledo sits and plays the piano, and talks about people as being like a giant stew and black people being the leftovers.
When it comes time to record the song, Irvin tells Ma the band says Sylvester can’t do the opening, She insists he can and refuses to be dissuaded. Ma chastises Levee knowing he had something to do with this. Mel says Sylvester can get one shot since it costs money, but Ma says with the money she makes the studio they’ll go as many times as she wants. Sylvester stutters quite a bit, and Ma tells him to take his time. Ma asks for a cold coca-cola, and when Irvin says he forgot it, Ma refuses to sing, incensing Mel. She sends Sylvester and Slow Drag out to get drinks and they take a break.
Ma pulls Cutler aside and says she doesn’t want to hear anything about “what the band says” and that Sylvester will do the opening. She tells him when they get back down to Memphis she wants him to replace Levee. Ma talks to Cutler about how white people only care about them when they can make them money – but they won’t even pay for a bottle of coca-cola. Levee, meanwhile, is flirting with Dussie, telling her he wants to take her out when they return to Memphis, and when he has his own band. They begin passionately kissing, and Levee blocks the door so they can have sex. Slow Drag interrupts them when Ma is ready to start.
Sylvester continues to stutter repeatedly, take after take after take. Ma refuses to record the song until the intro is recorded. Eventually, Sylvester gets it right, to his shock. The band records “Black Bottom” and everyone celebrates – until Mel realizes a mic had a faulty cord and nothing was recorded. Ma leaves in a huff, angry at the unprofessionalism. Irvin pleads for her to come back, that the records will be hits and they only need fifteen minutes. The band takes another break while the issue is fixed.
The band chastises Levee for fooling around with Dussie, saying he’ll be out of a job soon, but Levee insists he’s only talked with her and insists he’s done nothing wrong. He tells the others that they are settle for being thrown a bone by white men, and he’s going to make his band and be able to tell white men what to do just like Ma. They explain to him Ma isn’t even famous to white people, and Cutler tells a story about a black priest being terrorized by white men – and Levee asks where god was then. He says god hates black people, and god can kiss his ass, and Cutler punches him. They begin fighting and Levee pulls a knife, calling on “Cutler’s god” to save him like he did his mother. Levee says he heard his mother calling out to him when she was attacked, and god did nothing.
Later, everyone gets back to recording. Everyone celebrates the success, but Ma asks Levee why he was improvising and playing so many notes, and Levee says he’s playing the music the best way. Levee snaps back at Ma, and Ma immediately fires him. Levee says it’ll be the best thing that ever happened to him and that he doesn’t need this shit anymore. He goes and breaks open the back door only to find it leads to a dead end.
Irvin meets with Ma and tells her Mel said he will only pay Sylvester out of her pay. Ma says he’s supposed to have his own money and tells Irvin to fix it. Mel comes back and says it simply was a mistake – and Ma says he only seemed to find it a mistake when he saw she hadn’t signed the release forms for the recordings. She leaves, and Irvin chases after her and pleads with her to sign the forms. She does, but tells Irvin to tell Mel any more mistakes and she’ll make her records somewhere else.
The band packs up, and Mel arrives and pays them. Levee asks him about the songs he wrote, and Mel says they’re not what he’s looking for. Mel says he had his guys play the songs and they weren’t right, that they won’t sell like Ma’s records. He offers to buy the songs off him, devastating Levee, who wants to record the songs like he and Mel talked about. Toledo steps on Levee’s shoe, and Levee becomes irate even after Toledo has apologized. Levee takes his knife and stabs Toledo in the back, killing him. The band looks on in horror as Levee rocks Toledo’s body and tells him not to look at him like that.
Later, Mel has a white singer record Levee’s songs at the studio. The credits show photos of the real Ma and her band.
In 1927, mother of blues Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) travels with her band from the south to a recording studio in Chicago. The trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) writes his own music and wants to start his own band and make it big. He has gotten Mel, the head of the recording studio, to agree to record some of his tracks. He has made changes to some of Ma's songs, which she shoots down in no uncertain terms.
Levee is also sleeping with Ma's girlfriend, Dussie. He eventually talks back to Ma after the recording and she fires him. He says he's better off anyway, but then Mel tells him he'll buy the songs from him but he won't let him record them himself. With his options disappearing, Levee becomes devastated and after fellow band member Toledo (Glynn Turman) steps on his foot, Levee becomes irate and stabs him, killing him.
Later, Mel has white musicians record Levee's songs.