Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a film that I felt like I needed to see. As shocking as it is to say, I don’t really anticipate movies all that often. Sure, the week leading up to a release I may be excited to watch it in a couple of days, but there are few films that I follow every scrap of news about. Joker was the last time I felt that and my reaction after watching it, which Matt and Hubert can attest to, was that it was perfectly fine, but overhyped to hell and back. It was a lesson for me not to set too high a lofty expectation of a film before I’ve seen it.
This is a lesson that I’m sure many gamers are experiencing right now, but there’s something to be said about getting your hopes up only to be disappointed. As sad as it is to say, being cynical is probably the best way to prevent yourself from being disappointed, but it makes the surprise of liking what you experience all the sweeter. Leading up to its release, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was exciting to me, past experiences be damned. It looked like it was a perfect storm of everything that I love about film all wrapped in a nice little package. And after seeing it, I can still attest that it’s everything I love about film in a lean and effective 90-minute runtime.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Director: George C. Wolfe
Release Date: December 18th,2020 (Netflix)
Based on the 1982 August Wilson play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom centers around the famed Blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) recording the title track of her album in 1927. Most of the action tasks place in a recording studio in Chicago, but for as forceful and domineering Ma Rainey may be, sometimes to the point of absurdity, the action doesn’t revolve around her solely. We also spent time with the musicians in her band, most notably Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a hot-headed trumpeter with a manic personality dead set on having his own band and striking it out on his own.
As someone who had never seen the play before, or even read the original script, what struck me most about the film was how intimate the proceedings felt. With the movie primarily shot in one location, you almost feel like a fly on the wall, listening to each of the characters talk and share their stories about their lives or general platitudes. I can almost visualize exactly how things would look on stage because make no mistake, this film is pretty much a staged play with some dynamic cinematography. Each room felt unique and served a specific purpose, one designed by Wilson but realized by Wolfe.
Director George C. Wolfe is no stranger to theatre, having been a director on Broadway for several decades. His credits include luminary productions like the original Broadway run of Angels in America, arguably one of the most defining plays of the 20th century. Wolfe understands that what really brings to life any script, especially those by August Wilson, is the need to really delve into the minds of the characters and the hints of subtext peppered throughout. He knows that what isn’t being said is oftentimes far more important than what is said.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a film about a lot of things. With a cast of predominantly African American musicians recording for white men, you better believe there’s an overt discussion of racial relations in America, but also an all too subtle investigation into the treatment of African American musicians in the music industry. Ma and both the head of the studio (Jonny Coyne) and Ma’s Manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) constantly debate and argue about how the album should go. From having her stuttering son do vocals to refusing to record certain songs, you can tell that Ma is fighting back against an agenda that’s forced upon her by her white superiors and is able to stand up for herself. It’s aspirational until you question whether Ma’s motives come from a sense of pride in her heritage versus pure egotism as one of the most famed black musicians of her time.
Both of the white men cater to Ma and her demands, but when it comes to people without that status? Second class citizens. Boseman’s Levee isn’t a known talent despite his bolstering and he gets taken advantage of in minor yet heartbreaking ways. The final shot of the film affirms this with a group of white men playing one of Levee’s original songs that sounds absolutely lifeless compared to Ma’s work, which is kind of the point. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom presents a complicated look at race amongst many other topics, but its interpretation will be one I think about for a while.
Unfortunately, we can’t talk about the film without mention Chadwick Boseman, as the actor died back in August and this movie is his final performance. How is his final role? In short, it’s sublime. While I can’t say I’ve seen all of his works, his performance as Levee was the most three dimensional I’ve seen the actor, starting as a boisterous ladies man before the facade is peeled away to reveal a traumatized and neurotic mess that really only had his aspirations to cling to. He’s a mixture of being bark and bite, the kind of person you hate to work with but he gets the job done, but you would never spend time with him unless you were forced to.
I personally have never been one to see films specifically for a particular actor. Actors are unfortunately disposable and a number of actors could have played Levee, but none of them could have been as dynamic as Boseman was. Since his passing shocked the world, it almost felt obligatory to me to watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom just to see him perform one more time. And my God what a performance to leave us with. Make no mistake, Boseman will win Best Actor this year at the various awards shows. Some may say it’s purely superficial, only to honor his impact as T’Challa in the same way that Heath Ledger was honored back in 2008, but like that legendary performance, Boseman deserves all the praise he gets here.
But let’s not forget Viola Davis, who also steals the show whenever she appears as Ma herself. The last time she starred in an August Wilson adaptation it netted her an Oscar and that magic may happen twice. While I think her competition this year is a bit fiercer, her character holds nothing back and dominates every scene she’s in. All eyes are on her and even subtle moves like how she sits say a lot about the kind of woman she is. The only real drawback to her performance is that she so rarely gets any time to act opposite of Boseman as the two are kept in virtually separate universes. That’s by design, but it’s still a bit disappointing.
At a solid 90 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome yet doesn’t have me wishing it was longer. It tells the story it wanted to tell and leaves you just when you’re satisfied. You don’t need a two hour or two and a half hour epic to be fully entertained. Big things come in small packages and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is efficient and fierce.
Critics are starting to talk about some of the best films of the year and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom deserves to be in that conversation. Boasting two of the best performances of the year, a rock-solid supporting cast, and a script that is to die for, it’s hard to think of any faults of the film. I can only think of ways to enhance what’s already good about it, but never any legit criticisms. Like Fences before it, these strings of August Wilson adaptations have been nothing but critical successes and deserve your time and attention.