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Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Directed by: George C. Wolfe

Premise: Adapted from the stage play by August Wilson. Set in 1927, blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) gathers in a studio with a band to record music.

What Works: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an impressive a showcase for its actors. The film is led by Viola Davis in the title role and Davis is terrific as a diva who is fully aware of her craft but also grasps the realities of the music business. Davis has a talent for commanding a scene and projecting authority and intelligence. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom she matches those skills with the Dionysian qualities of a rock star and the combination makes her an explosive and powerful character. The other star performance of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is Chadwick Boseman as an ambitious trumpet player. This is Boseman’s last performance before his untimely death and it’s a worthy capstone to his career; Boseman’s character is the most complex person in the film and his swagger is revealed as a cover to conceal the trauma and insecurity of his life. Also notable are Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and Glynn Turman as the rest of the band. Each of these characters is distinct and likable and some of the film’s most enjoyable moments are the banter between the musicians. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also succeeds as a style piece. The film has a vivid, sweaty, and gritty look that suits the characters and the subject matter. As an adaptation of a stage play, the filmmakers approach the material cinematically. The camera movement and blocking of the action give the talky material a free flowing kineticism that’s in keeping with the musical subject matter. The film also uses the blues music purposefully. This story connects blues music with the realities of poverty and racism and the film dramatizes the way this struggle manifested within the music industry.

What Doesn’t: Perhaps owing to its roots as a stage play, most everything about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is obvious. Live theater doesn’t allow for nuance or inference the way that cinema does and there’s little subtext to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The characters are generally who they initially appear to be and the themes are mostly spelled out for us. It’s not a didactic film but what it has to say about race and music is mostly on the surface. Anyone who is acquainted with the history of the entertainment industry, and especially music, will find few revelations in this story.

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a vivid period piece that draws together the way music and business can both reflect and reinforce the personal experiences of its participants as well as the uglier aspects of the society that created it. It’s a well-crafted piece of filmmaking with some exceptional performances.

Episode: #833 (January 3, 2021)