In 2016, the film adaptation of legendary playwright August Wilson’s “Fences” racked up nominations at the Academy Awards – including a Best Supporting Actress win for Viola Davis. Since then, everyone has known it would only be a matter of time until producer Denzel Washington delivered the next cinematic version of a Wilson classic to do the same. Well, the time has come.
Like its predecessor, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is one of the titans of this year’s awards season. Even before the great Chadwick Boseman’s unexpected passing in August, the film was already well-established on radars across the film industry and now, even more so. But the attention isn’t out of sympathy or pity – it’s extremely well-deserved, considering the film boasts two of the best individual performances of the year.
The film as a whole may not come together to create an all-around masterpiece, but Davis and Boseman alone are more than enough to justify spending an hour and a half with “Ma Rainey.”
In 1927 the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Davis), is set to record a brand new album at a studio in Chicago, but like usual, the singer is fashionably late. While they wait on Ma to arrive, the rest of the band swaps stories and tell jokes as they tune their instruments and run through the setlist.
It’s clear from the start that one of these band members is not like the others. Levee (Boseman) is a young, ambitious trumpeter, while the other members like Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Toledo (Glynn Turman) have all accepted their roles playing back up to Ma. This doesn’t sit right with Levee, and he’s not afraid to let Ma know it, which leads to a number of confrontations between the two – especially when the producers prefer Levee’s renditions over Ma’s.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a battle between two of life: the old and the new, the innovative and the traditional. When Levee and Ma’s clashing styles reach their breaking point, the fallout extends far beyond just music.
While Davis may play the titular role – and be the one who’s seemingly all but guaranteed to win an Oscar – this is Boseman’s film. Awards predictors contemplated for months whether Netflix would campaign the late actor as a Lead or Supporting actor, but it’s now abundantly clear that the decision to push forward as a leading man was the right choice.
Boseman’s Levee dominates the screen and holds the film for a majority of its runtime, taking audiences through a spectrum of emotions never seen before in the actor’s illustrious career. One moment he’s on top of the world smooth talking and boasting about his new yellow shoes, then the next Levee is mid-breakdown recounting the pain of his childhood. Boseman’s ability to instantly flip the switch is unmatched – we truly lost one of the very best.
Boseman’s turn as a true lead may have come as a surprise, but that doesn’t take anything away from Davis as Ma Rainey herself. From her very first scene, Davis brings a swagger to Ma that lets everyone onscreen and off know that nobody crosses the Mother of the Blues. It’s easy to see why a revered actor like Davis was chosen to play a woman as highly regarded as Ma. While Davis is no doubt warmer in real life than her character, both women have an aura that lets everyone know they’re in the presence of greatness.
Turman and Potts each turn in solid performances as Ma’s remaining band members, but it’s Domingo as the trombone player Cutler who stands out from the ensemble. He’s the only one tough enough to stand up to Levee’s brashness, and Domingo’s wisdom and savvy balance out Boseman’s energy.
It would be easy for director George C. Wolfe and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler to phone it in when adapting a stage play – particularly one set in the 1920s – but the duo make excellent creative choices when it comes to the film’s camera work. The juxtaposition between the subjects and the way they are portrayed is extreme, melding the classic look of the ’20s with modern filmmaking. From revolving oners to aerial shots and striking zooms, Schliessler’s decisions are anything but traditional for a period piece, instead providing a refreshing take on the time.
Where “Ma Rainey” falters is simply in its story. The dialogue is compelling, but at times the pacing slows a bit in between confrontations and the film loses steam. At no fault of the filmmakers or performers, it’s no secret that this play of Wilson’s is just not as masterful as “Fences.”
Ultimately, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a performance-driven film – and it more than delivers in that department thanks to Boseman and Davis. While it may not be a masterpiece as a whole, those stirring performances and Boseman’s final role are more than enough to make it worthy of a watch.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.