Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

By Christian DiMartino

2020 was… let’s say, a weird year. Typically, I do my best to see any movie I can, and as many as I can. Once movie theatres shut down back in March though, all sense of caring went out the window. Recently though, I’ve done my best to try and get back into it… and I’m still pretty behind, but it’s a work in progress. Also, around this time of year, my predictions for the Academy Awards begin to brew. Not this time though, but again, it’s a work in progress. Having said this though, one such prediction has entered my radar, and surely it’s an obvious one: Chadwick Boseman will win the Best Actor Oscar for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Boseman, whose passing shocked us all back in late August, could end up the first posthumous acting Oscar win since Heath Ledger’s work in The Dark Knight, and not only would this not come as a surprise, but it would certainly feel earned. Boseman’s career was quite brief, but also, think about how huge it was. The guy played Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall; He headlined the first comic book movie to ever receive a Best Picture nomination, Black Panther; He starred in the current highest grossing film ever made, Avengers: Endgame. It would only be fitting if, for his final performance, he went home with an Academy Award, because his final hour is indeed his finest hour, and a reminder of what a shame it is that we’ll never get to see him do anything like it again.

As for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom itself, here is a film more devoted to its characters than anything else. There is a story, but it’s very much an actor’s movie. Which makes sense, considering the film is an adaptation of the late August Wilson’s stage play of the same name. Wilson, who also wrote Fences, was a whizz at giving his actors the opportunity to act their bloody hearts out. And act they do. Adapting a play to the big screen can prove to be tricky, because some films, like Mike Nichols’ Closer, obviously have their theatrical roots, but also pull off the cinematic feat well. As good of a movie as Fences was, Denzel Washington’s directing ultimately felt like he’d made a filmed play. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels that way at times too, but like Fences, it’s so compelling and well acted and written that it doesn’t matter.

Viola Davis, who nabbed an Oscar for Fences, plays the title role here, and could easily nab another nomination. Set in Chicago of 1927, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom finds most of its action inside a recording studio, as Ma Rainey and her band gear up for a recording session. Truth be told, tension is in the air. Ma Rainey, larger than life with a huge attitude, is pretty fed up with the white studio executives, who she fears are trying to undermine her, and seeing as she’s a huge deal, and sees herself as a huge deal, this cannot stand. Tensions also rise between Ma Rainey and her band members, or rather, the band members against the other band members. Levee (Boseman), her ambitious horn player, is starting the most of the ruckus, having a fling with one of Ma Rainey’s family members and also starting to turn on the band itself.

That’s about it, really, and if that doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, maybe it isn’t. Having said this though, the film moves at a brisk pace and never comes across as dull. In all honesty, I am a sucker for film adaptations of stage plays. From Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to A Streetcar Named Desire to August: Osage County to Killer Joe to Closer to Fences, and so on, each of these films display phenomenal acting , and it’s typically because the actors are handed such phenomenal writing, and they know they cannot disappoint. They don’t, and because of that, even if much of the action is talking, it holds us in their grip, and the same can be said about Ma Rainey.

The acting here is a wonder. Davis, who looks quite frightening at times, gets totally lost in this role, and in the best way possible. She turns it up to 11 every time she’s on screen. Everyone else around her does too, but as you know, this is Boseman’s show, and not just because it’s his final film, but because he about runs away with it. Boseman gets two pretty major monologues here, and each one is delivered with chilling power and gusto. The first is disturbing and hard to listen to, but no less effective; the second one is marvelous, and watching it now, one has to wonder if this scene, in which Levee is screaming and cursing at God, came from within Boseman. The scene resonates a lot more looking at it from that perspective.

Here is a really good movie that I almost loved, and didn’t quite because I wish the ending had a little more time to breathe. We get a moment that is genuinely shocking, and then the movie ends. Not really sure what else could have been done after that, but I wish there had been something, because what was a rather effective moment ends on a note that’s just a smidge too abrupt for me. Yet that doesn’t in any way sink Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a great looking, fabulously acted little number that will more than likely earn Boseman the Academy Award he so deserves.

A-

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