In Reviews

December 15th, 2020




To have lost such an incredible talent such as Chadwick Boseman is a blemish on humanity. His very presence in movies, his stature, and star power was something we did not have enough of in cinema today. And we did not have enough time. His performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is arguably the best acting performance of 2020, a statement that seems preposterous, considering he just lost his battle with cancer, a battle that he kept private with himself, but the timing is just right. Maybe Chadwick knew this was it and decided to pour his heart and soul into this last run. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is another August Wilson play, turned into a powerful cinematic expression, taking place in 1927 Chicago, where a group of musicians have gathered at a recording studio to play behind the “mother of the blues”, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). It’s a whirlwind of conversations, about the path taken for these artists to get there, about the management pushing the talent around till they get what they want, and the aspiration of all to be given the respect that they deserve. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an expression of thespian music and it is going to be played the Ma Rainey way.

There are only a few players involved, but more than what we saw in Denzel Washington’s Fences, and still, the makeup of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is compact. The screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, however, allows his characters to explore the environment and the mood of the room. The band arrives at the recording studio- Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone, Toledo (Glynn Turman) on the piano, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on the bass, and Levee (Boseman) on the trumpet- and they are urgently ushered into a basement locker. They can’t just stay in the studio and practice, they are regulated to a lower dwelling, instantly reminding them of their place in the world. Once convened in the room, conversations begin, about what brought them there, their anticipation to playing with Ma Rainey, and much more, including Levee, who’s swagger and cocky nature makes him the most boastful of the group. There’s obviously a notion that two trains are charging toward one another, Levee, who has confidence in his many talents, and Ma Rainey, the queen of music at the time, and a person who knows the values of herself. And yes, they do collide.

The direction of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is by George C. Wolfe, who is no stranger to telling a story about the blues, and making an intimate production. Two of his previous works, Lackawanna Blues and Nights in Rodanthe, are slightly merged together here. This involves a smaller cast, raw emotions, and the passionate fight to earn respect in a society that will step over black people. His production is much bigger than what Denzel dealt with in Fences. The description of Fences is a boxing match, with three characters circling one another in the backyard. Ma Rainey is more layered, with the white managers looking down from above, barking orders, wanting more out of the talent. Ma Rainey is in the middle, pushing back to be treated as the superstar she was, a pioneer for the music, and a memorable bellowing voice; While the musicians eagerly wait downstairs, conversing about their own struggles, while Levee waxes on his hopes and dreams of being his own band leader one day.

Going into more detail about the plot would be too much, but the highlight of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are the performances from Boseman and Davis. Although Fences brought her the Oscar (still deservingly so), there’s an argument that Viola Davis delivers even better work as Ma Rainey. Although she may lose marks for not doing her own singing, there’s still an exceptional command with her presence. The costume of a big flowing golden dress dances as she sings, along with her gold prosthetic teeth that add a flare to Davis, which arguably cements her chameleon acting style. Her work as Ma Rainey will be a memorable highlight in an already illustrious career. And then there is Bosemen. He’s the engine of the entire film. His character of Levee is complex and devastating. Bosemen delivers multiple monologues, including one where Levee brings the whole room quiet, discussing the violent and racist mistreatment of his family. This is a performance that would bring audiences to tears and goosebumps alone, and now there’s added weight that this beautiful soul is no longer with us today.

It may be limiting to talk about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom from the perspective of the acting, but that’s the reason to see this movie. As many other stage plays turned movies, there are still many shortcomings, where the sets look staged, the action feels more repetitive here than in Fences, and the supporting cast sinks behind the major players. And still, George C. Wolfe’s direction is strong, pacing the drama with elegance, and rightfully focusing the narrative on the two big stars. The highlight of it all will always be that it’s the last performance of Chadwick Boseman’s career. It’s a beautiful way for the king of Wakanda to be honored because his life is a song that will go on forever.


3 1/2 STARS

Written by: Leo Brady

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