Film Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

DIRECTED BY: George C. Wolfe

STARRING: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige, Dusan Brown, Jonny Coyne and Jeremy Shamos

 

SYNOPSIS

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”.

Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians await trailblazing performer, the legendary ‘Mother of the Blues’, Ma Rainey. Late to the session, the fearless, fiery Ma engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music. As the band waits in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious trumpeter Levee – who has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend and is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry – spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the film adaptation of August Wilson’s play, loosely based on the real-life blues singer Ma Rainey, adapted by screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe. The film is set in 1920’s Chicago, over the course of an afternoon recording session where the the band await the arrival of trailblazing performer, the legendary ‘Mother of the Blues’ Ma Rainey. Late to the session, Ma Rainey engages in a battle of wills with her white manager Irvin and producer Sturdyvant over control of her music and the way the records should be recorded. Meanwhile, ambitious trumpeter Levee, who has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae, and is determined to make his own path in the music industry by soliciting with Sturdyvant, leading into an eruption of stories amongst the men, revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives.

 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom marks the second film to be an adaptation of an August Wilson play, with the first being 2016’s Fences, also starring Viola Davis alongside Denzel Washington. While I felt that Fences was too constraint in its adaptation and didn’t really benefit much in going from stage to the big screen, here I felt Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom benefitted more from it as it’s only set during the course of one afternoon, full with interesting characters and a sharply written, tightly put together script  by Ruben Santiago-Hudson that makes the films ninety-four minute a breeze. Set in the 1920’s, the style of that era is captured well thanks to the costume design work of Ann Roth, the style of the cars as well as the set decoration work by Karen O’Hara and Diana Stoughton. I thought the way George C. Wolfe directed these scenes, primarily the recording studio and the rehearsal room, really well, particularly in how he has the story and the characters flow in such confined spaces, and that’s also thanks to Andrew Mondshein’s editing. As for the cinematography, Tobias A. Schliessler does a tremendous job here in how he captures lighting in these confined spaces, as well as the way he captures the close-ups of the cast, especially Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, it’s so immersive.

 

While the film is solid to great on a technical standpoint, what elevates the film further is the performances across the board from the ensemble. Veteran character actors such as Michael Potts, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and and Jeremy Shamos give really good performances here, with Domingo in particular getting to shine with his charisma and the monologues he delivers here. Viola Davis gives a great performance as Ma Rainey, a real-life figure I’m not familiar with outside of a few of her songs. Davis is a force to be reckoned with here as Ma Rainey, who makes ‘diva’-like demands when it comes to the recording sessions but they come with a purpose that she later explains to Cutler that brings depth to her character. She’s not the only diva amongst the group however, with the other being trumpet player Levee, portrayed by the late Chadwick Boseman. A lot will be made about this film, primarily because it is Chadwick Boseman’s last performance, and while I knew of the buzz surrounding it and speculation being that it was believed to be worthy of awards contention, I can honestly say now after watching the film that not only is the hype justified, I believe it could be his best performance on screen. Levee is ambitious, charming, fast-talking, quick-witted, slightly hubris and Boseman has a blast portraying this character and fleshing him out and I’m absolutely glued to the screen watching, hanging on his every word, and it’s clear that by title the film is about Ma Rainey, but it’s Levee’s journey that steals the show. For me, it’s one of the best performances from an actor I’ve seen this year, I’d put him in contention with Delroy Lindo from his performance in Da 5 Bloods. I can see how some people might feel that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is similar to Fences as in it’s ‘too stagey’, but from a cinematic element I feel Black Bottom works well.

 

VERDICT

At a brisk ninety-four mins, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom flows by quickly, with a captivating script, solid ensemble, a great performance by Viola Davis and an outstanding performance by the late Chadwick Boseman, which will easily put the two into awards consideration.

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