Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
When a movie feels like a play
Like many people, my interest in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom revolved around good critical reviews and seeing Chadwick Boseman’s final film appearance. In fact, before watching the movie, I knew nothing about the 1984 August Wilson play that it’s based on. And that’s really where this review should start.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of ten Century Cycle plays written by Wilson and based on different 20th-century African American experiences. The play is set in 1927 during a single day at a Chicago recording studio. It’s based on the real life 1920’s blues singer Ma Rainey and shows the internal dynamics of the titular character and her band. Race, religion and the rapidly evolving music industry of the day are major themes in the play. I’ve never seen Wilson’s play, but after watching the movie, I feel like I have. And for me, that wasn’t a good thing.
After what seemed like an endless scene of heavy dialogue in a practice room early in the film, I correctly surmised that I was watching one of those play-turned-movie movies. And as the plot progressed, the themes got weightier, and that heaviness only got heavier. I found myself switching from ‘movie mode’ to ‘play mode’ to enjoy this movie. But Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is certainly not the first film where I’ve had to do that. In fact, I feel like the play-turned-movie has developed into somewhat of a film genre of its own. It’s just not my cup of tea.
That said, there’s a lot to like here. Despite the limited sets, the film looks great. I could feel the heat from the recording studio in every bead of sweat on the characters. And those few external shots went a long way in breaking up the monotony of the internal sets. Ma’s outlandish stage style combined with effective props and costumes did a great job of recreating a 1920’s ambience. But, of course, the bulk of praise has to go to the acting from Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.
I’ve seen past performances from Davis I’ve really liked, but in my opinion, Ma Rainey is the best role she’s ever had. Her on-screen presence is captivating and terrifying and all-consuming. It’s what I can only imagine Ma Rainey to have actually been like in real life. Her performance is only bolstered by the almost palpable tension between her character and Chadwick Boseman’s Levee Green.
In a very dialogue-heavy film, Boseman carries the bulk of the dialogue. In another actor’s hands, the character could have fallen flat. But, like Davis, Boseman gives a great performance. There’s a lot of expounding and emoting and scene-stealing without the often accompanied ‘gimme my Oscar’ acting that goes with roles like these. Instead, I found myself genuinely believing his interpretation of a deeply flawed, traumatized and unhinged character. Ironically, and to his credit, he may very well win a posthumous Oscar in a few months of writing this review.
I may never see the stage version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but I imagine a lot of what I didn’t like about the film works really well in a play. Regardless, I would still recommend this movie to people. But I’d also recommend they do a little research on its history before watching.
Source: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) (2020)