“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, and follows “Mother of the Blues” singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) amid a stressful recording session one summer afternoon in 1927 Chicago. Chadwick Boseman also stars (in his final film appearance), with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts in supporting roles; George C. Wolfe directs.
When Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer this past August, it came as a shock to many. He had been looking thinner in recent public appearances, but since he was such a larger-than-life character both on- and off-screen, plus we had just watched him in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” in June, no one assumed the worst was coming. Maybe Boseman knew “Black Bottom” would be his final performance, maybe not, but his work has almost a spiritual sense to it, and could see him earn a posthumous Academy Award nomination.
Chadwick Boseman was only really a big player in movies for seven years, when he came onto the scene as Jackie Robinson in “42.” Since then he played several prominent African-American historical figures, as well as the superhero Black Panther in the MCU. Boseman always had a presence about him, and you feel it in “Black Bottom.” Boseman’s Levee, a trumpet player with high ambitions, is wise-cracking and full of swagger (when we first meet him, he is hitting on women and bragging about his new shoes), but underneath the surface there is pain and struggle. Boseman is able to flip the switch so quickly and with such nuance that you almost don’t even notice, and he says as much with his words as he does with his eyes. I still think Anthony Hopkins gave one of the best performances I have ever seen in “The Father” and he deserves the Best Actor awards, but Boseman is sure to earn some over the next five(!) months and I will be over-the-moon happy for him and his family.
The rest of the cast is solid, with Viola Davis obviously being the other big draw here. Playing Ma Rainey, Davis does her own singing in the film and wears a heavy amount of makeup, to the point she is almost unrecognizable. Davis is at the point in her career where it is hard to be surprised by her acting, and I didn’t think she did anything too great here, but she is able to carry the scenes where Boseman is absent.
The production and costume design are both top-notch as well. You get immersed in early-20th century Chicago, from the cars and the skyline, to the loose ties and fedoras. The score is also pretty good, with the low jazz horns and drum beats.
Where the film comes up short is arguably the most important aspect: the script, adapted from August Wilson’s play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Santiago-Hudson has a career in theater, as well as acting in films, but this is his first screenplay. Much like “Fences” and other adaptations, the film definitely feels like a play, with only two main locations (both big square rooms) and some exaggerated Shakespearian dialogue and monologues. My issues aren’t with all that, it is that the narrative seems unsure how to lay all the plot points out. For most of the film the big issue is finally getting Rainey’s song recorded, and the hurdles they face from a stuttering singer to Boseman’s ego. However in the final 15 minutes we get a whole world of new conflicts, and it seemed like there wasn’t enough going on in the first two acts to suddenly way too much in the third.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an actor’s showcase, including a touching swansong performance from Chadwick Boseman, and has some fantastic below-the-line work as well. I can honestly see a world where this gets nominations in every category except Screenplay, that is how notably weaker it is compared to the top-tier work everywhere else. For sure check this film out when it drops on Netflix, and I will be rooting for it to win many awards all season; I just wish the overall experience as a whole left a greater impression on me.
Critics Rating: 6/10