Directed by George C. Wolfe — Screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
Based on the August Wilson play of the same name, George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom primarily takes place in a recording studio in Chicago back in the 1920s. Here Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis), lovingly dubbed the ‘Mother of the Blues,’ is planning to record several songs with her band. Rainey arrives fashionably late and is ready and able to throw her weight around, whereas the ambitious, animated, and flirty Levee (played by Chadwick Boseman), a young and talented trumpeter, is preparing his next move towards stardom while practicing with the rest of the band. While Rainey battles with both her manager and a producer for the purpose of having some control of her own career, Levee’s ambitious attitude doesn’t sit right with Ma or his bandmates (played by Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts).
Wolfe’s film tells an affecting story about ownership, gatekeeping, the African-American experience in the music industry of the 1920s, and intense potential brought to a breaking point. It is a story that sees, then, old and new musical styles clash during a recording session as one artist demands authority over their career, whereas another is trying hard to breakthrough by any means necessary. The film showcases the immense pressure of a music industry dominated by white producers, who were getting rich off of the burgeoning popularity of a musical style that the producers’ white artists were incapable of tapping into on their own. The film’s final scenes pack a punch, and it is very upsetting.
Wolfe, who is also an accomplished playwright and director of theater, has made a gripping and sometimes shattering adaptation of an award-winning August Wilson play. That said, my one reservation about the film as a whole is that I’m not sure its very long scenes, and the film’s very few locations, allow the film to feel cinematic enough. It is extremely obvious to recognize that the story was made for the stage. However, that said, it didn’t bother me nearly as much here in Wolfe’s film as it did with 2013’s Fences, which, of course, was also an adaptation of an August Wilson play. I think the biggest reason why the film still succeeds, in spite of admittedly and obviously feeling like a play, is because of the incredible performance at the heart of the film.
The costume design and make-up and hairstyling departments also deserve a lot of credit here, as they help Viola Davis to completely disappear into her role as the ‘Mother of Blues.’ Sometimes she is downright unrecognizable, and she lends a physicality to the part that she deserves a lot of praise for. This is also a fantastic ensemble film with actors finely tuned to allow for several affecting performances, including those delivered by Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman.
However, there can be no doubt that this absolutely is Chadwick Boseman’s film. As we now know, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was the late, great Chadwick Boseman’s final film performances, and what a performance it is. In 2020, we have seen Chadwick Boseman deliver two of his career’s very best performances, with this and Da 5 Bloods. In Da 5 Bloods, he delivers a memorable supporting performance as an almost messianic character who was lost too soon, and, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Chadwick Boseman channels a fiery and exciting charisma as a wronged man trying to have the moment his gifts should earn him. Like Levee appears to be, Boseman was an incredible talent who we all felt was on his way to becoming one of his industry’s most iconic stars. It hurts when Boseman, as Levee, proclaims that his time is coming, and Boseman is both electrifying and shattering in the role at the heart of the film.
Although it is difficult to escape the fact that this story was made for the stage, George C. Wolfe’s ensemble drama about gatekeeping, ownership, and exploitation is nevertheless engrossing and upsetting. However, it must be said that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom would not be what it is now without the career-best performance delivered by the late, great Chadwick Boseman, whose deeply moving performance really should be recognized by industry awards.
8.5 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.