Adapted from the play by August Wilson, with a script by Ruben Santiago-Hudson that manages to maintain the energy and inflection of those words to a perfect degree, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom tells the story of a recording session in Chicago in the 1920s between the titular Ma Rainey, her band, and the powers that be in the music industry. It’s a story about black artists trying to navigate a world that seeks to exploit them, with its two main players (Viola Davis’ Ma Rainey, Chadwick Boseman’s Levee) navigating that realm with different methods and offering a blueprint for how it can go down either road. It’s a story about power, how it corrupts, how it can be tamed, and how it consumes.
Viola Davis, whose sole Oscar win comes from her other August Wilson-based feature (Fences), fully commits to the part of Ma Rainey and falls so easily into that part that she has disappears. Oftentimes we hear this verbiage for people playing psychos or comic book villains, but it’s no hyperbole in this case and one of the best examples of an actress fully committing to the part. This is clear not just in the physical transformation but in her actions, as her eyes linger on pesky characters and her voice raises like a mother disciplining her children. Though a brisk 90 minutes, Davis’ command of her role could be watched for hours.
Chadwick Boseman makes his final film performance in Ma Rainey as Levee, the trumpet player of the band who has a panache for doing things his way. Boseman’s energy is something else in the film as he steps into a role that feels like he’s not even performing for us at all. His raw and ferocious presence can be felt throughout the film, which speaks volumes to his work standing alongside the titan that is Davis’ character. It’s also refreshing to see Boseman just playing a regular person, too, someone who curses and cuts up and has ambitions that are small and relatable. It’s a powerful thing to watch. I’ll also note that supporting stars Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and Glynn Turman all hold their own against him, as they share most of their screentime with Boseman throughout.
Oftentimes when a play makes the leap to the big screen it becomes clear to the audience that this was something previously only staged in the three-wall boundaries of live-performance theater. Sometimes there’s a lack of movement in the camera that only further serves as a reminder that this story was previously only seen from the angle of your seat in the audience. Where Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom differs from many of those, despite having the calling card of limited sets, is the energy in its direction. Filmmaker George C. Wolfe directed the picture and manages to mostly maintain a style and aesthetic with his camera that puts us so directly in the middle of its narrative that we feel like we’re part of the story; we’re not watching the play, we’re in it.
This strategy, while one of the strengths of the movie as a whole, leads to one of the few trappings of the movie, which comes in editorial decisions. Though the camera might be following the entire room, spinning and moving between characters to maintain the pace of the conversation and dialogue, there are often cuts in these dramatic and necessary extended takes. Obviously these reverse-shots and coverage offer an even bigger view of the entire portrait on display from German cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler, but to break that near-seamless movement of our view hurts the film as a whole.
It’s not novel to point out that it’s a tragedy this film is Chadwick Boseman’s final appearance in a feature, but his work in the movie serves as a constant reminder of what a gift he had and how much talent he was prepared to deliver to us, the viewers, throughout his career. What we can be thankful for is that his final two performances, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Da 5 Bloods, can be watched by the world at a moment’s notice on Netflix. Watch them both and be richer for it, he made these for us.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5