A Netflix Original Picture, Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Directed by George C. Wolfe.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tells the story of a 1927 recording session for legendary singer Ma Rainey’s (Viola Davis) new album, and focuses on the behind the scenes struggles that grip the day, especially focusing on Levee (Chadwick Boseman) and the rest of the band as they prepare to play. It is part of producer Denzel Washington’s push to adapt August Wilson’s legendary plays to screen, a collection which will show the Black experience in America throughout the decades. The film itself is a powder-keg of vibrancy and tension, packed full of real flare and musical exuberance, as well as simmering pain and anger that threatens to overflow at every wrong turn.
The real centrepiece and thing that makes this film work are the performances, and there is simply no other place to start than with the late Chadwick Boseman. Boseman suddenly passed away in the summer, making this his final film role, and despite the tragedy still feeling so fresh and powerful, there is simply no better performance to go out on than this. He is very much the lead of the film, and he carries it on his shoulders with ease. His Levee is a ball of energy, packed full of charisma, pain, hope, and sadness, and Boseman manages to merge them together perfectly as he becomes almost the quintessential Wilson leading man, clinging on to hope but broken down by a system that abuses him. Some of the monologues Boseman delivers throughout the film are genuinely earth-shattering and it is quite simply the acting performance of the year. He had so much more to give us, even though he had already given us so much. What a loss, he was just getting started.
As for the rest of the cast, despite falling very much into Boseman’s shadow, they are still exceptional and are real contenders when it comes round to best ensembles of the year. Viola Davis is not in the film as much as you might expect for the titular character, but when she appears, she is superb and completely transforms into the role, showing us a woman who is deliberately over the top and difficult because she knows as a Black woman in a white man’s world that they are only after her voice, and without that, they view her as useless. The rest of the cast are also truly great; Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, and Taylour Paige all bringing unique attributes to this melting pot of talent. Paige has the least to do of anyone, but her charm, acting ability, and natural beauty, especially in the passionate scenes she shares with Boseman, is electric. She really leaps off the screen and demands you pay attention to her, perfectly pairing with Boseman to deliver some of the best scenes of the film, and I cannot wait to see how her career progresses.
The main criticism that I have seen people throw at this film, is the main criticism I have myself, and that is that it still very much feels like a play, and in many ways like a filmed version of the play. When adapting from stage to screen, the key balance to strike is to keep the essence of the play alive while expanding the scope of the story to make it more cinematic, and in general, this isn’t something on display here. The majority of the film still takes place in the cramped space of just a couple of rooms, and feels very much like you could have just filmed the play. However, this doesn’t completely mean that the adaptation doesn’t work, because the dialogue and acting is so strong, along with some electric direction, that it keeps you completely gripped and takes your mind away from the fact that the scope of the story hasn’t been expanded much (and in reality, I’m not sure to what extent you can expand this story).
This film, and August Wilson’s original piece of work, tells a very specific story that examines multitudes of angles on the Black experience in America, and does so in an initially subtle and then increasingly prevalent way, leading to some startling moments. Two of the things that the film heavily examines are the exploitation of black artists for the gain of white businessmen, and the constant threat to the life of people of colour in every day situations, from outside their community, and as a result of that, from within. There are very particular moments in the film that deal with this head on, which I will not spoil, but it is done very well and is incredibly powerful. The devastating final scene, in which we see an all-white band playing the music Levee created and wanted to be able to play himself, really hammers this home even more, and leaves you feeling entirely furious by the end. It will be important to search for the views on this film of Black critics to really get an understanding of how successfully the film tell their story, and it is their views we need to listen to.
Overall, this film is a real success due to the remarkable performances and strong, unfortunately timeless themes. The narrative has been driven by Chadwick Boseman’s passing, and he is rightly the favourite to win an Oscar for this performance. In such a short time, I don’t believe any actor in Hollywood history has left behind a legacy similar to his, particularly when it comes to the Black community. RIP King.
Rating = 4/5