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Johnny’s Awards Radar: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

While Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and David Fincher’s “Mank” were the biggest Oscar favorites from Netflix coming into this year, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was no slouch, either. With Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe at the helm and Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman slated as the co-leads, hopes were high for the first film adaptation of August Wilson’s 1984 play of the same name. Since then, the film has only grown in stature over the last three months, with everyone longing to see the final performance from the late, great Chadwick Boseman. 

I was lucky enough to see the film already, and it launches globally on Netflix this Friday, which makes this the perfect opportunity to see where it registers on my Awards Radar! As usual, I’ll be breaking things down category-by-category, assessing the film’s chances on each one, based on the cast/crew involved, my personal thoughts on the films and how the rest of the year’s contenders are shaping up. I’ll skip over any categories where I don’t anticipate the film to contend or be eligible for, such as Best Visual Effects or Best Supporting Actress.

My tiers of assessment are as follows:

DEFINITE: All signs point to yes. I would bet everything in my bank account that the film will be nominated in that category.

PROBABLE: The chances of it being nominated are more likely than not, but I wouldn’t be willing to bet my life on it.

POSSIBLE: The chances of it being nominated are there, but not solid. The category has strong competition or the cast/crew members don’t have a strong awards history.

UNLIKELY: There is the slimmest of chances that it will be nominated, but it can’t be entirely ruled out.

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (Netflix)


Again, this is one of Netflix’s big three contenders this year, right in the mix with “Mank” and “Trial of the Chicago 7.” While I don’t see this winning the big prize over either of those, this feels like the third-safest bet when it comes to Best Picture noms this year. Its profile is boosted by producers Denzel Washington and Todd Black, both of whom produced the 2017 Best Picture nominee “Fences” — another August Wilson adaptation starring Viola Davis.



Similarly to Best Picture, there are a few contenders that are much safer bets. Either Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) or David Fincher (“Mank”) will likely end up taking it home, but Regina King (“One Night in Miami”) is expected to become the first Black woman ever nominated in the category, and Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) is well-respected. In a mix of fringe contenders, I’d still put Wolfe’s odds behind Florian Zeller’s adaptation of another stage play in “The Father” and Lee Isaac Chung’s intimate semi-autobiographical work in “Minari.”


Chadwick Boseman as Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (Netflix)


Man, oh man. With all due respect to the other performers this year, the best performance of Boseman’s career coming in his final performance just feels poetic and meant to be. While Delroy Lindo earned most of the attention in this category over the summer, Boseman has emerged as the man to beat. The only one who will stand in his way is Sir Anthony Hopkins, who seems to have somehow delivered the best performance of his career, too, at 82 years of age. Regardless of if he wins, a nomination is certainly written in the stars.



Viola Davis’s first Oscar win came for her supporting role in “Fences.” While this role has arguably just as much screen time or perhaps even less, Netflix is campaigning her as a lead. She’s a top contender to win, but faces stiff competition from two-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”) and rising star Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”).



Colman Domingo feels like the unsung hero of every single project he appears in. The man’s been around 25 years now, but has become best known over the last few. He’s been a main cast member on “Fear the Walking Dead” and has had small appearances in films like “42,” “Selma” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” However, this season is quite possibly his biggest yet, as he stars opposite Zendaya in the “Euphoria” special “Trouble Don’t Last Always” and goes toe-to-toe with Chadwick Boseman in “Ma Rainey.” He won’t get much awards attention, if any, but Domingo is a veteran who continues to grow before our eyes.


Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, director George C. Wolfe and Chadwick Boseman as Levee on the set of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (Netflix)


Tobias A. Schliessler’s work here reminded me of the visuals you’d typically see from Baz Luhrmann’s films, like “Moulin Rouge!” or “The Great Gatsby.” It feels a bit larger than life in a way that’s required to keep a stage play adaptation from feeling too static. That said, beware of Hoyte van Hoytema crashing the party with his 70-pound IMAX camerawork on “Tenet.”



While it feels safe to say Chloé Zhao has this one basically wrapped up for “Nomadland,” “Ma Rainey” is one of several that feel like no-brainer nominees. Screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s work is probably made a lot easier when August Wilson’s words are front and center.



A solid candidate in this category, but not as showy as contenders like “Chicago 7” or “Mank.” Even as far as stage play adaptations go this year, I’d place it firmly behind “The Father” and maybe even “One Night in Miami.” Andrew Mondshein is accomplished, with one Oscar nomination under his belt, so maybe that can provide him an extra boost.


Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, Taylour Paige as Dussie Mae, and Dusan Brown as Sylvester in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (Netflix)


Hans Zimmer. What else is there to say? The 11-time Oscar-nominee turned down a seventh collaboration with Christopher Nolan on “Tenet” in order to work on Villeneuve’s adaptation. Zimmer told The Playlist last year that the novel is “one of my favorite books from my teenage years.” Zimmer was nominated four times in the last decade, but his sole win came in 1995. Maybe devising the music for this sci-fi magnum opus can help him reclaim the gold.



Alongside “Mank” and “Emma,” “Ma Rainey” is one of the best-realized worlds we get to see in film this year. The handful of rooms the characters inhabit during this fairly isolated film are not only meticulously crafted, but are designed to allow for careful blocking of the performers. We’re also treated to a recreation of 1920s Chicago streets that look like they’re practically baking in the afternoon heat.


Viola Davis as Ma RaineyChadwick Boseman as Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (Netflix)


This is a period piece Best Picture nominee with designs from four-time Oscar-nominee Ann Roth. Don’t be surprised if it wins. There isn’t much more to say beyond that.



This category will likely come down to a pair of Netflix contenders: this and “Hillbilly Elegy.” Viola Davis is almost unrecognizable with the work of dental prosthetics and a fat suit, and the entire cast is fitted with period-accurate hairstyling. It’s beautifully done and pleasant to behold, unlike the weathered, aged looks of Amy Adams and Glenn Close in “Elegy,” which may end up giving “Ma Rainey” the edge.



“Sound of Metal” and “Mank” are pulling away from the rest of the pack in this category, with “Tenet” and “Soul” bringing up the rear. “Ma Rainey” feels like a fringe contender, along with “The Midnight Sky” and “Greyhound.” It just doesn’t feel like it has enough musical moments to grab the attention of voters.




JOHNNY’S CURRENT PREDICTION: Seven (Picture, Actor, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling)

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Johnny Sobczak View All

Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."

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