Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

A ferocious new film from Netflix boasts stellar performances and a great film adaptation of a play. This is a full throated roar of a movie that bursts with energy and fervor. It is absolutely worth your time and attention.

Based on the play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the eponymous blues singer Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis, as she records a record in Chicago on a sweltering summer day. There is conflict between Rainey and everyone, her manager, the record label owner, and her backing band especially Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman. Levee is young with fresh ideas about the future of music and the way to play songs. He is an incendiary force in the rehearsal room as he challenges and antagonizes the backing band.

Though based on a play, the film never feels like a stage play. So many films based on plays feel locked into a single location the way a stage play would be. The director George C Wolfe is an acclaimed director of film and stage. He handles the material beautifully never letting scenes drag nor cutting them too short. He has an excellent eye for staging and how to move the camera within a confined space to give the performers room to breathe while also creating a claustrophobic sense of space. It’s one of the best stage adaptations I’ve seen in a long time.

The film is full of fascinating themes that resonate deeply today. Race plays a huge role in the film. The band is all black and each member has their own history with racism and race relations. Levee has one of the most powerful monologues I’ve seen and Boseman knocks it out of the park. Specifically, there is a fascinating power struggle between Ma Rainey and the white record producers. They try to back her into corners and force her hand. They offer her less money than they agreed on. They “forget” the case of coke she demanded. They try to rush the recording and use arrangements she doesn’t like. She gives it right back to them. She knows she can sell records and she knows that’s the only reason they are working with her. She throws her weight around and the power struggle on display is fascinating to watch. The final moments of this movie is one of the quietest yet hardest hitting moments in modern movies. It is so subtle yet lands like a roll of thunder.

Chadwick Boseman is getting all the acclaim, and deservedly so. He had been struggling with cancer during the filming of this movie and his thin somewhat gaunt appearance is a haunting reminder that this is the last time we’ll be seeing him in a new roll. It’s doubly tragic watching him portray a character so excited by the future. I hope genuinely hope he wins every award for this movie. His performance is so well rounded and so full that it would be a shame if anyone else stole it from him. He is brilliant here.

Also brilliant is Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. She is a woman with a big personality. By the time she walks in a room she’s already been there for ten minutes. She has a big bold look with gold teeth and heaps of makeup, but Davis is never swallowed up by the accoutrement. She has a beating heart underneath it all. And through the film she conveys that all this is protection against the bastards of the world trying to cheat her out of what she has. It’s a brilliant performance in a movie full of brilliant performances .

I was deeply affected by this movie. It captured me from a filmmaking standpoint. It hit me right in the heart with its tragic elements. It made me think about the world in a different way. I loved this movie. It rings in my head like a great song does. It’s absolutely my cup of tea. It’s currently streaming on Netflix. Please check it out. It’s an A for me.

A fun side note, the title of the film is of course the title of the song Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which the band records int he movie. The Black Bottom was a dance craze that swept the nation in the 1920’s and refers to the Black Bottom neighborhood of Detroit where the dance originated.

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