Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom review by Bobby Blakey
In 2016 Denzel Washington brought August Wilson’s play Fences from stage to screen. Since I heard he was determined to bring more of Wilson’s work to the screen and that’s exactly what he has begun with producing the Netflix films Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom from director George C. Wolfe. The film stars Viola Davis and the late great Chadwick Boseman in his final on screen performance alongside Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Glynn Turman, Dusan Brown and Taylour Paige, but does it do justice to the source material and legend of Ma Rainey or will it fail to hit the right note?
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows tensions and temperatures that rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians await trailblazing performer, the legendary "Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey. Late to the session, the fearless, fiery Ma engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music. As the band waits in the studio's claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious trumpeter Levee who has an eye for Ma's girlfriend and is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry - spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives.
Going into this movie I honestly expected some great performances and a full on dive into the blues, but it was so much more. The film is executed almost like you are watching a stage production which is perfect to not only give a powerful tight film but also honors the stage to screen transition. Make no mistake this isn’t a small scale in that manor as it fully brings 1920’s Chicago to life from the cars to the streets all the way down to the shoes. Once they step into the studio the film focuses more on two locations, the recording area and downstairs room where the band stays prior to recording.
Being an August Wilson written play you already know there is going to be so much to ingest, but bringing the power of Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman brings so much more to the words. The entire cast here is excellent, but its Davis and Boseman who really lead the charge. Davis fully personifies a power woman who knows her worth and despite the prejudices
of the time will not be anything less than just that. She brings a presence to Ma that comes off as arrogant and a bit hard edged and no nonsense, but not because she is a bad person, but because she knows her worth and will not be treated any less. She continues to bring her brilliance to every role she plays and her make-over and performance fully embodies Ma in a display of perfection.
On the other end is Boseman’s Levee who is arrogant in his own talent and worth without having the clout to back it up. There is so much more depth to the character that you learn as it moves forward leading to an arc that is heavy and one you won’t soon forget. It is insane to say, but in a career full of great performances this is without a doubt Boseman’s most powerful. Much like Davis, he puts everything he has and is into the role and it bleeds through the screen. Seeing and hearing the character he is bringing to life and knowing his own secret burden he was dealing with makes it so much more impressive and powerful. Know that had he lived this would still have shown through, but for me as the audience I felt the pain of his character and the man.
I went into this film with little expectations and came out blown away emotionally and in the witnessing of true acting brilliance across the board. It makes me even sad and angry to know that all the social injustice and prejudices that these people endured during this time is still relevant today. I hope this film finds the audience it deserves for not only the brilliance but another eye opening example of what’s wrong in the world today.
This film is an exercise of acting perfection and I hope that award season has its eyes open to give them all what they more than deserve. Either way this film stands on its own and awards or not is one of the best acted films of the year. Check out Ma Rainey's Black Bottom streaming exclusively now on Netflix.