The Stream: Since the film takes place in basically two rooms, it can feel claustrophobic.
The Big Screen: Two dynamic and commanding performances by Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis.
The Final Bill: Cast, costumes, and screenplay all work together to make the movie entertaining and powerful.– Trip Fontaine and S2S: Movie Review
Director: George C. Wolfe
Writers: Ruben Santiago-Hudson (based on a play by August Wilson)
Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo
Rating: R (strong language)
Runtime: 1 hour 30 minutes
Platform: Netflix (Released Dec. 18, 2020)
Happy New Year, Streamers! We’re still in the thick of the winter movie season when all of the prestige flicks are crowding the cinemas and home theaters. Netflix has a full stable and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of its best. Picture it: Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues”. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play, George C. Wolfe directs this adaptation to great success.
Adapting a play can be a difficult transition since the medium of film allows for the expansion of the theatrical world. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in basically two rooms, so it can feel quite static and claustrophobic. Be that as it may, the themes and the language of the play is so dynamic that it’s still captivating. The ensemble cast works very well together. Viola Davis is Ma Rainey with all the bravado and a physical transformation that enhances her every move. Chadwick Boseman plays the trumpeter in Ma’s band, Levee. Levee aches to break out on his own and grab his own spotlight – literally and figuratively. Boseman’s every line is infused with that passion. Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts round out the members of the band, who spar with Levee and attempt to make it through the recording session. The scenes of all of them together are worth the price of admission itself.
The most difficult part of watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is seeing this great performance given by Chadwick Boseman and knowing that it is the last bit of greatest captured for the actor in his prime. He has powerful monologues that are delivered with great depth of emotion. Boseman was giving it his all. Viola Davis is equally great. She walks in as Ma Rainey and takes over every scene. Davis may have less screen time than Boseman, but not a second, a movement, a look or line delivery is wasted. I’ve never seen Viola Davis like this and she turns it out.
Beyond the performances, the production does so well to bring this hot Chicago day in 1927 to life. The costumes look great. The make-up and body work on Viola Davis complete that picture of Ma as a woman in control. The design of the practice room and recording studio feel authentic. It all just comes together beautifully, and Wolfe directs this tense and potentially heavy film with such care allowing themes to come to life without feeling heavy-handed. At less than 90 minutes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom moves at such a steady pace that it’s easy to watch multiple times. My only knock is the ending being a bit random and seems to come out of nowhere.
Ultimately, I really loved Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The entire ensemble is so good and anchored by award-worthy performances from the leads, Boseman and Davis. While the themes can be sobering, the film is not dour – it is lively and entertaining throughout. Take your big box of popcorn and let Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom put you in a trance. You’ll get that reference when you see the film.