Review: ‘Rounding,’ starring Namir Smallwood, Sidney Flanigan and Michael Potts

June 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Namir Smallwood in “Rounding” (Photo by Nate Hurtsellers)

“Rounding” 

Directed by Alex Thompson

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the dramatic film “Rounding” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A fairly new doctor, who has a history of mental illness, starts working at a rural hospital, where he becomes fixated on a 19-year-old woman with serious respiratory problems.

Culture Audience: “Rounding” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching unrealisitic and incoherent medical dramas.

Although the medical drama “Rounding” has a very talented cast, this rambling and pointless movie is an insult to the medical profession and to viewers’ intelligence. The movie’s horror elements are time-wasting, repetitive distractions that are used as borderline tacky ways to represent mental illness. And the “medical mystery” in “Rounding” is terribly mishandled in a story about a mentally ill doctor who is convinced that something sinister is going on with one of his patients at the hospital where he works.

It’s all so disappointing, because “Rounding” director Alex Thompson made such a memorable and appealing feature-film debut with 2020’s “Saint Frances,” a comedy/drama about a nanny who experiences an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy while caring for a precocious 6-year-old girl named Frances. Thompson should be commended for taking the risk of having his second feature film as a drastic departure from his first feature film, but “Rounding” is most definitely a “sophomore slump.” “Rounding” is almost a direct opposite movie to “Saint Frances” in every way, including the quality of the filmmaking.

“Saint Frances” was written by Kelly O’Sullivan, who starred as the nanny in the movie. She also has a supporting role in “Rounding” as a hospital doctor. “Rounding” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) was written by Alex Thompson and Christopher Thompson, and it’s a far inferior screenplay to “Saint Frances.” “Rounding” is as dull as “Saint Frances” is lively.

One of the biggest strengths of “Saint Frances” was the authentic-sounding and witty dialogue, as well as characters that were written as people with believable personalities. By contrast, “Rounding” looks and sounds very phony, with empty characters acting out unrealistic scenarios. It’s also very hard to care about any of the characters in “Rounding,” because they (and the rest of this movie) are written as incomplete sketches.

The title of “Rounding” refers to the word used for medical professionals making the rounds to visit patients, usually at a hospital. In the production notes for “Rounding,” Alex Thompson makes a statement that reads, in part: “I grew up in a family of medical professionals. Dinner conversations often included black lung and bronchoscopies, and when asked how his day went, my father can be relied upon to reply, ‘I didn’t kill anyone.’ At the start of the [COVID-19 pandemic] lockdown in Kentucky, he told me about a patient he’d seen frequently as a young resident whose story was strange and who he thought about often.”

It’s astonishing that Alex Thompson says he comes from a family of medical professionals, because “Rounding” is so full of plot holes and ridiculous nonsense, it looks like it was made by a director who didn’t bother consulting with any medical professionals. Adding to the movie’s problems, it seems like Alex Thompson couldn’t decide if he wanted to make a medical mystery drama, a psychological thriller or a horror movie. “Rounding” has elements of all three genres, but it’s mostly a medical drama with some psychological and horror scenes thrown into the mix in redundant ways.

“Rounding” begins with a scene showing the death of an elderly hospital patient named Vivian Spurlock (played by Cheryl Lynn Bruce), who has an unnamed respiratory condition, because she needs to breathe through a tube in her throat. Vivian is being attended to by Dr. James Hayman (played by Namir Smallwood), who’s a resident at this unnamed hospital in this unnamed U.S. city with a large urban population. Before going into Vivian’s hospital room, where she is the only patient, James stopped by a medication supply room to get a liquid drug that viewers find out later is potassium chloride. He’s seen by a security guard named Bart (played by Alex Wilson), and they exchange pleasant small talk.

James is very calm and measured when he goes into Vivian’s room. They talk for a little bit before he says to her: “I found that poem you remembered. Are you sure this is what you want?” Vivian replies, “I’m sure.” James removes the tube from Vivan’s throat and puts the potassium chloride in Vivian’s intravenous fluid bag. At this point, it’s easy for viewers to see that James is about to kill Vivian with a lethal dose. But is it euthanasia, or is it murder?

As the potassium chloride starts to flow through Vivian’s body, James reads her the poem that she requested. It’s implied that she asked James to help her commit euthanasia, and her request included that he would read this poem as she lay dying on the hospital bed. But something goes terribly wrong.

Vivian changes her mind about dying, and she begs James to help her live. But it’s too late. The overdose has already been administered. Vivian dies. James calls for help, and several hospital workers rush into the room. James is seen running out of the room and collapsing in a hospital hallway.

The next scene takes place two months later. James is in an office meeting with a supervisor named Dr. Justin Groff (played by Ed Kross), who is unhappy with what James has just told him: James has decided to accept a job offer at a rural hospital named Greenville, which is in an unnamed part of the United States. It’s mentioned (but never shown in the movie) that James had a nervous breakdown after Vivian’s death and was in a psychiatric facility for it. Because of this breakdown, James was on a leave of absence from this hospital job that he’s about to quit.

James has been released from the facility, but he’s supposed to be in ongoing therapy for his mental health. Justin thinks that it’s too early for James to start working again, but James disagrees. “You barely started counseling,” Justin tells James. “You don’t strike me as a country mouse,” he adds of James moving to a rural area to work at a hospital with less resources than the hospital that James is leaving. However, James is undeterred. He’s going to work at Greenville Hospital.

This meeting with James and Justin is the scene where “Rounding” immediately starts to go downhill. First of all, a medical examination would reveal that Vivian’s cause of death was a potassium chloride overdose. Therefore, Vivian’s death would be investigated as suspicious and probable homicide. It’s no mystery who was the last person to see Vivian alive. And that same person was seen in the medical supply room, where some potassium chloride has gone missing.

In real life, most hospitals in large urban areas have strict ways of making sure that employees don’t steal medication from the supply room. And even if this hospital didn’t have those policies in place, James was still seen taking medication from the supply room, and then Vivian died shortly after he visited her room, and he was the last person to see her alive. At the very least, James would have to undergo an investigation, which is never mentioned in the movie.

But “Rounding” wants viewers to be too ignorant to think about or know about all of these real-life facts. Not only does James never undergo an investigation over Vivian’s death, it’s mentioned later in the movie that he also got a recommendation letter from his supervisor (presumably Dr. Groff) to take this new job at Greenville Hospital. The entire flimsy premise of “Rounding” is reliant on viewers believing that James experienced no consequences or scrutiny for a patient dying of a potassium chloride overdose while under his watch.

James is a doctor, but apparently he’s not making enough money to afford more than being able to rent a room in a non-descript house when he moves to this unnamed rural area. (He might be heavily in debt from student loans.) His middle-aged landlord Mrs. Watts (played by Meighan Gerachis) is disheveled and world-weary. She tells James that the room he’s renting used to be her son’s room, which is why it still has a lot of his belongings from his childhood. Mrs. Watts also mentions that her son didn’t approve of renting out the room, but now her son has been “dead for a few years. He was struggling with depression.”

And what a coincidence: Another young doctor at Greenville Hospital is also renting a room in Mrs. Watts’ home. His name is Carol Hontolas (played by Max Lipchitz), and his only purpose in the movie is to be a co-worker who has the ability to see how James acts when James is at home. Carol is a friendly and upbeat person who seems to want the best for an obviously troubled James.

If people start watching “Rounding” by thinking it will be a horror movie, they might mistakenly believe that this house will be a source of mystery and intrigue. It’s not. In fact, there was really no point in even having the scene where Mrs. Watts had to mention that James is now living in a room where her dead son once lived. It’s one of many examples of pointless scenes in the movie.

James’ supervisor at Greenville Hospital is Dr. Emil Harrison (played by Michael Potts), whose actions and words become increasingly odd and unprofessional as the story continues. But when Emil first meets James, he’s warm, welcoming and seems to care a great deal about providing empathetic medical treatment. He even gives James a tour of Greenville, which he describes as a hospital that prides itself on having a personal touch with its patients.

Emil is vaguely aware that James had some problems at the hospital where James previously worked, but Emil assumes it was burnout from working in a large urban hospital. He also knows that Emil has some mental health issues, but Emil doesn’t really know all the details. The movie shows whether or not Emil finds out the truth about James’ background.

Emil explains to James why Greenville is open to giving inexperienced doctors who are second-year residents (such as James) a chance to work there: “We’re such a flexible program.” Emil also tells James that Greenville will give James a “fresh start” and a “rural patient experience.” Emil adds, “There’s a real ability to make an impact here.”

At Greenville, James works closely with Carol and two other young doctors, who all go on rounds with him: Dr. Kayla Matthews (played by O’Sullivan) and Dr. Mac MacLauren (played by Bradley Grant Smith), who are ultimately fairly useless characters. Kayla is completely generic and forgettable and a waste of O’Sullivan’s actor talent. At first, Mac seems to be an antagonist to James, because he acts superior to James and seems to be waiting for James to do something wrong. However, whatever storyline that could’ve been developed for this Mac/James rivalry goes nowhere. James ultimately proves to be his own worst enemy.

There’s a scene that reveals that Mac and James attended the same middle school and hadn’t seen each other in years until James came back to his rural area to work for Greenville Hospital. It’s the movie’s first mention that James spent at least part of his childhood in this rural area, but then “Rounding” completely ignores this important information. When Mac sees James for the first time in years, it’s outside of a bar where some of the hospital doctors are hanging out. Mac says to James: “I hear you’ve been having a rough time.” James defensively brushes off this comment by abruptly saying, “I’m fine.”

However, whatever problems James was having before he moved to this rural area are not going away just because he’s changed where he lives. James predictably continues to have whatever mental illness that he probably had before Vivian’s death. Expect to see James have numerous hallucinations involving some shadowy monsters in murky locations. These “horror” scenes aren’t very scary and are fairly short. Sometimes, James has these hallucinations on the job, so he’s shown freaking out in a hospital hallway or cowering in fear in a back room.

James also has blackouts on the job. Some of these blackouts last for hours. He wakes up to find a co-worker saying that people were looking for him, and he was expected to be somewhere hours ago. What kind of hospital employee or medical worker could get away with this incompetence? Only in a dumb movie like “Rounding.”

Even when he’s clearly unfit to do his job, James is never really held accountable. He’s just told to stay away from a certain patient after this patient becomes his obsession. That patient is 19-year-old Helen Adso (played by Sidney Flanigan), who is bedridden in the hospital after having a series of respiratory problems.

When James sees Helen in the hospital for the first time, he’s startled, because a number of days earlier, he saw Helen shoplifting candy in a grocery store. During this shoplifting incident (another pointless scene), Helen and James made eye contact with each other. She knew he saw her shoplifting, but Helen and James didn’t say anything to each other.

Helen has asthma, but she’s been in this hospital for symptoms that are definitely not asthmatic. Doctors can’t seem to diagnose Helen’s mystery respiratory illness. James notices from Helen’s medical records that Helen has been admitted to the hospital six times so far that year. James raises these concerns to Emil, who explains that Helen gets treated at the hospital when Helen’s lung specialist goes on vacation. James also questions the hospital’s medical test results for Helen.

Emil gets defensive and tries to make James feel like James is being paranoid and insubordinate whenever James is skeptical about how the hospital is treating Helen. Emil lets James run his own tests on one occasion, but Emil mostly acts like James is being a nuisance for constantly questioning the hospital’s treatment of Helen. Mac, Kayla and Carol also tell James not to question the hospital’s procedures.

Emil often leads Mac, Kayla, Carol and James on group “roundings” at the hospital. One day, during a rounding, Emil gives James the task of telling a patient named Mr. Jones (played by Edwin Lee Gibson) that Mr. Jones has Stage 4 lung cancer and has only three to six months to live. It doesn’t go well, because James is too aloof and clinical in telling this news, and Mr. Jones gets angry at how James is talking to him. Emil, Mac, Kayla and Carol see this outburst.

Later, Emil tells James in a private meeting that James needs to go to a seminar to improve James’ bedside manner. When James asks Emil if he’s doing anything wrong, Emil insists that all the hospital’s new doctors have to take this seminar. These seminar scenes just waste more screen time and ultimately just show that James hates being in an environment that resembles therapy and where people have to talk about feelings.

Helen has a very overprotective mother named Karen (played by Rebecca Spence), who is always with Helen in the hospital. Karen notices that James has taken an interest in Helen that goes beyond a normal doctor/patient relationship. It predictably leads to James and Karen clashing with each other.

While James is battling his personal demons, he suddenly wants to be an investigator into Helen’s mystery respiratory illness. He gets very upset when he finds out that Helen will be getting a lung transplant. He thinks this operation is unnecessary, while Karen and Emil vehemently disagree. James insists that they have to listen to what Helen’s body says. Yes, it’s that type of movie with this type of hokey dialogue.

“Rounding” makes very superficial and awkward attempts to make it look like James is building a friendly rapport with Helen. But it all looks so staged and unconvincing. And he comes off looking like a creepy older man who becomes obsessed with befriending a vulnerable teenage patient when she gets out of the hospital. James says and does things that are very inappropriate and would get most hospital doctors suspended or fired, although “Rounding” obviously wants James to look like a protagonist who should get sympathy from viewers.

James becomes so obsessed with Helen, he does some stalking and theft, which won’t be further detailed in this review. He also begins to think that Helen’s mystery illness is being caused by her mother Karen, who has set up an online fundraising collection for Helen (similar to a GoFundMe account), which has raised a six-figure sum so far. Munchausen syndrome (causing an illness to get sympathy and attention) is mentioned several times in the movie. But is Helen’s illness actually Munchausen syndrome caused by Helen, is it Munchausen syndrome by proxy caused by Karen, or is it something else?

The character of Helen could have been fascinating, but she has mostly a blank personality in this movie. “Rounding” is just a showcase for James’ neuroses and hallucinations, which become uninteresting in their repetitiveness. Helen’s lack of character development in “Rounding” is a big letdown and an underuse of Flanigan’s talent. Flanigan made an impressive feature-film debut starring in the 2020’s critically acclaimed drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” in which she played a 17-year-old who travels from Pennsylvania to New York to get an abortion.

“Rounding” gets worse, as James’ mental health and his unprofessionalism are never adequately addressed. Emil gets more and more aggravating as a supervisor who dismisses obvious problems, as if these problems will solve on their own. There’s a scene toward the end of the film where James tells Emil that he’s having nightmares. Emil just responds cheerfully and says, “You’re sleeping.”

This disconnected reaction is supposed to show Emil’s tendency to be out-of-touch and in denial, but it’s just an example of how the Emil character is poorly written. Potts gives an adequate performance in an awful role that will have a lot of viewers more irritated with Emil than any other character by the end of the movie. As bad as James is on the job, Emil is in many ways worse, because Emil is a supervisor who lets so many medically and legally problematic things happen at the hospital, with Emil’s full knowledge.

Forget about getting any backstories for any of the characters in “Rounding.” There are no meaningful details about the backgrounds of any of these characters, except it’s repeated that James is emotionally attached to his mother, whom he says inspired him to become a doctor. There are a few scenes where James talks to his loving and supportive mother on the phone.

“Rounding” goes off on a mishandled tangent where James acts like a private investigator. But considering his mental instability, viewers will question if what James finds out is real or possibly a figment of his imagination. James gets an abscessed wound on his left foot, so the movie shows him limping around a lot, with no explanation for why he doesn’t get this wound treated. Not surprisingly, the wound gets worse.

Smallwood’s performance as James isn’t bad, but it’s not outstanding, and probably would’ve been better if this movie’s screenplay and direction were up to basic standards of engaging storytelling. “Rounding” has a surprise “reveal” at the end, which completely falls flat, and brings up some major questions that the movie never answers. By the end of “Rounding,” it becomes obvious that the filmmakers have made an atrocious mockery of the medical profession and mental illness, just to make a movie that’s trying to be artsy but is in fact an erratic mess.

Review: ‘Measure of Revenge,’ starring Melissa Leo and Bella Thorne

April 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Bella Thorne and Melissa Leo in “Measure of Revenge” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Measure of Revenge”

Directed by Peyfa

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Measure of Revenge” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A fairly well-known Broadway actress is out for deadly revenge against the people who supplied a dangerous drug to her musician son and his pregnant girlfriend, who both died from an overdose of this drug. 

Culture Audience: “Measure of Revenge” will appeal primarily to fans of mindless vigilante movies, because nothing about this movie is appealing, interesting or well-done.

Jake Weary and Melissa Leo in “Measure of Revenge” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The crime drama “Measure of Revenge” is such an atrocious dud, no one wants to be listed as the movie’s screenwriter. And it’s easy to see why. It’s a heinous story about a Broadway actress who becomes a murderous vigilante on a rampage because she wants revenge for the drug overdose deaths of her musician son and his pregnant girlfriend. Directed by Peyfa (the alias of Peter Wong), “Measure of Revenge” is nothing but a complete embarrassment to everyone involved in making this pathetic excuse of a movie. “Measure of Revenge” was filmed on location in New York City, which is probably the only thing that looks authentic in this very awkwardly acted and fake-looking film.

What makes “Measure of Revenge” so cringeworthy is that the movie tries to look artsy by throwing in various themes and characters from William Shakespeare plays. “Measure of Revenge” sullies, trashes and insults Shakespeare’s legacy in ways that are even more offensive than the phony-looking murders that take place in the movie. Believe it or not, the unhinged vigilante in “Measure of Revenge” commits one of her murders during an intermission for a play where she’s performing on stage as the Ghost in “Hamlet,” without bothering to change her clothes or disguise herself during the murder. She then goes back to her dressing room, as if no one would notice that she committed the murder while decked out in the same costume and makeup as she wore on stage in front of an audience.

Get used to a lot of this type of silly nonsense in “Measure of Revenge,” which is a movie that’s hard to watch not just because it’s so moronic, but also because it takes itself so seriously. Maybe the filmmakers thought that having an Oscar-winning actress in the cast (Melissa Leo) would automatically improve the movie’s quality. Wrong. Leo gives a lackluster performance as vigilante actress Lillian Cooper, who doesn’t garner much sympathy for her vengeful actions because they’re so ludicrously stupid.

During the course of the story, Lillian appears in various revisionist productions of Shakespeare plays that wouldn’t be worthy of a Broadway stage in real life and certainly wouldn’t pass muster in any reputable performing arts school. In other words, expect to see amateurish, almost laughable versions of “Macbeth” and “Hamlet” in “Measure of Revenge.” The movie’s horrible ending takes this Shakespeare theme to an idiotic and corny level that proves that there was no hope in redeeming this creatively bankrupt flop.

In the beginning of “Measure of Revenge,” Lillian (who’s a widow) happily welcomes her wayward son Curtis Cooper (played by Jake Weary) into her apartment, where he will be staying with her after getting out of rehab for addictions to drugs and alcohol. Curtis is a semi-famous musician/lead singer of a rock band called Red Drums. Curtis’ addictions have caused the band to cancel an upcoming tour.

Curtis’ rehab counselor Mike (played by Michael Gruenglas), who drops Curtis off at Lillian’s home, gives her this advice about Curtis: “Don’t let him out of your sight. The first few days [out of rehab] can be very delicate.” Curtis’ father/Lillian’s husband Raphael Cooper died in 1997, at the age of 36, long before Curtis grew up to become a famous musician.

Lillian’s home (which looks like a two-bedroom apartment) is about to get more crowded, because Curtis’ loving and supportive girlfriend Olivia (played by Jasmine Carmichael), who’s a nurse, is moving into Lillian’s place too. And soon afterward, Lillian finds out that Olivia is pregnant and that Curtis plans to propose marriage to Olivia. Curtis shows Lillian the engagement ring. Lillian approves of these marriage plans.

However, Curtis’ life after rehab isn’t going that smoothly. One day, Lillian is in a diner to meet Curtis for lunch. She looks out the window and sees Curtis in an angry confrontation with some of his band mates. She can’t hear what the argument is about, but she sees Curtis hit one of the men with the guitar that Curtis is carrying. When Curtis goes in the diner, all he will say to Lillian about his band situation is this: “I can’t go back to that world right now. It’s not for me.”

Not long after that, Lillian’s world is shattered when she comes home to find Curtis and Olivia dead. The medical examiner reports list the official cause of their deaths as an accidental overdose of a drug called PMA, which is described as being like Ecstasy (MDMA), but more toxic. Of course, Lillian doesn’t believe the overdoses were accidental. She’s certain that Curtis and Olivia were murdered, or at least that whoever supplied the drugs should be held responsible for these deaths. The police—including a dismissive cop named Detective Eaton (played by Michael Potts)—are of no help, so Lillian decides to take matters into her own hands.

Along the way, Lillian encounters a jaded photographer named Taz (played by Bella Thorne, giving a very stiff performance), who sells drugs, including PMA. Taz knew Curtis because she did album covers and portrait photography for him and his band. Lillian goes back and forth on whether or not she can trust Taz, who has a gun and gets menacing when Lillian tries to threaten her with a knife.

Taz knows a lot more than she’s telling, but she still gives Lillian enough information to point Lillian in the direction of the people who are Taz’s PMA suppliers. Lillian also has conflicts with Red Drums manager Billy (played by Ivan Martin); band member Ronin (played by Benedict Samuel); record company executive Claude (played by Kevin Corrigan); and a drug lord named The Gardener (played by Jamie Jackson), who has that nickname because he slit a man’s throat using gardening tools. Predictably, not everyone Lillian comes in contact with makes it out alive.

“Measure of Revenge” also has a love quadrangle as a weak subplot. Lillian finds out that before Curtis and Olivia became an official couple, Olivia was romantically involved with Ronin, but Olivia cheated on Ronin with Curtis. Meanwhile, Taz had her own secret affair going on with Curtis when he was dating Olivia. It’s all just another sordid aspect to this cheap and tacky movie.

During her murder spree, Lillian finds time to still do her Shakespeare plays, including her role as the Ghost in “Hamlet.” (And fittingly, early on in the movie, Lillian plays one of the three witches in “Macbeth.”) She also become increasingly disturbed and starts having hallucinations, such as thinking that she’s Gertrude from “Hamlet.” Not surprisingly, Lillian gets no enjoyment or satisfaction from her sloppy and dimwitted crimes. The same can be said for anyone who experiences “Measure of Revenge,” a sloppy and dimwitted crime against cinema.

Vertical Entertainment released “Measure of Revenge” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 18, 2022.

Review: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman

January 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chadwick Boseman, Dusan Brown, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Viola Davis  and Glynn Turman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Directed by George C. Wolfe

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1927, in Chicago and briefly in Barnesville, Georgia, the dramatic film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A tough-talking blues diva and her rebellious cornet player have conflicts and power struggles with each other, while they both have constant battles with white racism and the emotional scars that this bigotry has left on them.

Culture Audience: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will appeal primarily to August Wilson fans and people interested in well-acted movies about African American experiences.

Glynn Turman, Chadwick Boseman, Michael Potts, and Colman Domingo as Cutler in “May Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” triumphs as one of the rare movies adapted from a celebrated play that can actually claim to be better than the play, thanks to powerhouse performances by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The movie version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is based on August Wilson’s play that debuted on Broadway in 1984, takes place mostly in a small recording studio, but the deep emotional impact and the breadth of social issues experienced and conveyed by the characters go beyond the confines of that studio. The story is set in 1927, but the story’s themes are universal and timeless.

Directed by George C. Wolfe with a screenplay written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” begins in Barnesville, Georgia, where blues singer Ma Rainey (played by Davis) is giving a foot-stomping, rousing performance to an enthralled audience in a tent. She’s sweating profusely, as she does in every scene in the movie, and caught up in the rapture of giving a raw and passionate performance for the adoring crowd.

When she’s off stage, Ma isn’t the fun-loving, “good time gal” that she might appear to be when she’s on stage. Ma is a middle-aged diva who’s feeling the pressure of being considered a “has-been” as her former protégée Bessie Smith is almost certain to surpass Ma in popularity. It’s an ageism problem faced by many entertainers, especially women, who are at the mercy of fickle audiences and industry people who might end up moving on to someone who’s considered younger, more contemporary and more attractive.

Ma has earned the nickname the Mother of the Blues, and she’s not about to give up her reign at the top that easily. She uses her clout and her unique talent as reasons to do and say what she wants, including showing up late, berating her employees, and making people kowtow to her sometimes-unreasonable demands. It’s clear that Ma’s way of asserting her power is to counterbalance the humiliation and pain of racism that she experiences as a black woman in America, where white supremacy was legal in the form of racial segregation and other Jim Crow laws.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” references the Great Migration, a period of time (1916 to 1970) in U.S. history where millions of black people relocated from the states in the South to states in other parts of America. These areas outside of the South were often viewed as presenting better opportunities for people of color, but these areas certainly were not immune to racism. When Ma travels to Chicago for the one-day recording session that’s the majority of this story, it represents her own personal parallel to the Great Migration.

Where Ma goes, drama usually isn’t far behind. Upon arriving in Chicago during a sweltering summer, she gets into a dispute on the street when she’s accused of pushing down a white man. A cop (played by Joshua Harto) who’s called to the scene is inclined to arrest her, but Ma uses her clout, loud voice and her “take no crap” attitude to get the cop to back off.

Ma, who lives openly as a lesbian (as did the real-life Ma Rainey), is traveling by car to the recording studio. Accompanying her are her much-younger lover Dussie Mae (played by Taylour Paige) and Ma’s teenage nephew Sylvester (played by Dussan Brown). As gruff as Ma is to most people in her life, she shows tremendous loyalty to the few people who are closest to her, especially Sylvester.

Dussie Mae is an attractive young woman whose relationship with Ma is fairly new and is more like a “trophy girlfriend” than a soul mate to Ma. Throughout the movie, it’s implied that Dussie Mae is somewhat of a gold digger. Dussie Mae goes through life using her looks and sex appeal to get people to financially support her—not because she’s mean-spirited but because she’s too unsophisticated to doing anything else with her life.

Ma, as usual, is running late on her way to the studio, where she is scheduled to record the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” When Ma and her two-person entourage (Dussie Mae and Sylvester) finally get there, Ma takes charge and sometimes gets into subtle and not-so-subtle power struggles with the men who’ve been waiting for her at the studio. These power struggles have many different layers that exemplify issues of gender roles and racial discrimination.

The six men in the recording studio who experience Ma’s mercurial range of emotions during this challenging day are:

  • Levee (played by Boseman), the charismatic, foul-mouthed cornet player who’s the newest and most arrogant member of Ma’s band.
  • Cutler (played by Colman Domingo), the band’s trombone player who is very loyal to Ma and considers himself to be the most experienced and skilled in dealing with her mood swings.
  • Toledo (played by Glynn Turman), the band’s pianist who is the most likely to be the jokester in the group.
  • Slow Drag (played by Michael Potts), the band’s bass player who is the quietest and most laid-back member of the group.
  • Irvin (played by Jeremy Shamos), Ma’s longtime manager who often has to be a peacemaker when she decides on a whim to throw situations into chaos.
  • Sturdyvant (played by Jonny Coyne), the manager of the recording studio who grows increasingly impatient with Ma’s diva antics.

In the scenes in the recording studio, Irvin and Sturdyvant (who are white) are often together in a booth that overlooks the recording room where they can watch through a glass window what’s happening down below with the Ma and the rest of her African American colleagues. Irvin and Sturdyvant usually leave the booth to go into the recording studio when there’s a problem that affects their time and money invested in this recording session. And there are several interruptions to the recording session for this reason.

The higher location of the booth and its separation from the main recording studio room are obvious metaphors of the spoken and unspoken racial barriers that exist between the people in this recording session, where racism is a festering wound that has impacted the characters on a personal and societal level. Ma and her colleagues are all too aware that even though Ma is the star in this room, she still has a subservient role to the white men who control the music industry. It’s a role that she expresses with a lot of emotional pain, bitterness and defiance throughout the story.

At one point in the story Ma says with heavy resentment: “They don’t care care nothin’ about me. All they care about is my voice.” She adds, “If you colored and you can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.” And later in the story, Ma reveals that even though Irvin has been her manager for the past six years, the only time he invited her to his home was so she could perform for his “white friends.”

There are also issues over gender roles that permeate the story. When Ma arrives at the recording studio, she finds out that all the men who’ve been waiting for her have already decided that she will record a new, more upbeat version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” with the arrangement written by Levee. Ma refuses and declares that she is going to record the original version of the song. She also insists that her nephew Sylvester is going to do a short spoken intro to the song, even though he’s a stutterer.

Ma literally and figurately throws her weight around as she has diva tantrum after diva tantrum. At one point, she shouts: “I make more money for this outfit than anyone put together!” And when she finds out that the Coca-Cola that she requested in advance isn’t in the studio, she refuses to start recording until she gets her Coca-Cola.

All of the members of her band are very compliant except for Levee, who constantly challenges Ma’s decisions and tries to assert himself as a visionary musician whom Ma needs if she wants to get more respect for her music. Early on in the story, Tyree tells Cutler: “I ain’t like you, Cutler. I’ve got talent. I know how to play real music, not none of this jug band shit.”

Levee shows flashes of vanity (he brags about his shiny yellow shoes and is aware of how good-looking he is) and hubris (he thinks all of his ideas should be immediately accepted), but underneath that cockiness is someone who’s got deep-seated emotional pain and trauma. During the long stretches of time that the musicians in the band are waiting for Ma, Levee slowly opens up about his past and reveals secrets that explain why he acts the way that he does.

At one point, Levee is teased by the other members of the band when they see Levee acting in a very deferential way to Irvin and Sturdyvant. The band mates try to make Levee feel like he’s an “Uncle Tom,” which triggers Levee into losing his temper and then revealing a defining incident from his past that permanently changed his outlook on life. He tells this story in a harrowing monologue that’s one of the best scenes in the film.

Ma and Levee’s clashes with each other aren’t just about music. An observant Ma notices that Levee has been looking at Dussie Mae in a way that makes it obvious that he’s attracted to her. Dussie Mae flirts back when Ma isn’t around. And it doesn’t take long for Levee to ramp up his sexual advances toward Dussie Mae, even though the other band members warn Levee that Dussie Mae is “Ma’s girl.”

Levee’s disagreements with Ma over her musical direction, as well as Levee not even trying to hide that he’s interested in making moves on Ma’s lover, put him in a precarious situation where he might or might not be fired from the band. As time goes on during the day and Ma goes back and forth about whether or not she’ll complete the recording, Levee is going through his own insecurities and turmoil. At times, he also clashes with Cutler, especially when it’s revealed how Levee feels about God and religious beliefs.

Under the assured direction of Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” not only has a top-notch cast but the movie also excels in costume design, production design and music. The stage/play version of the story takes place in the winter, but the filmmakers made the astute decision to change the season to summer during an oppressive heat wave. It gives the movie more of a “pressure cooker” look and tone that’s an accurate reflection of the simmering tensions that permeate throughout the entire story.

Davis and Boseman give award-worthy performances in this movie that goes beyond personality conflicts and ego posturing. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (which was Boseman’s last movie; he died of colon cancer in August 2020) is also a story of the shared trauma of racism and how even the strongest of souls are tested by this insidious societal cancer. Viewers who are sensitive about hearing racially derogatory names should be warned that the “n” word is said many times in this movie, usually when uttered by Levee.

Even though the movie is called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the character of Ma has a lot less screen time than Levee does. If Ma is the heart of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” then Levee is the soul. Levee and Boseman’s heartbreaking performance represent anyone who has survived trauma inflicted by other people but struggles with the damage that can be inflicted by self-destruction.

Netflix released “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in select U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2020. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 18, 2020.

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