Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a beautiful piece showcasing the extreme talent of a few brilliant people. And, it’s a true yet untold story based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play written by the great August Wilson.
In Chicago, 1927, there was a recording session with Ma Rainey and her band. Tensions rise between Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (Viola Davis), her ambitious horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) and the white executives who wanted to control the sound of “Mother of the Blues”.
Director George C. Wolfe created a grand atmosphere in the opening scene, as the audience is first introduced to Ma Rainey. We see Viola Davis in her most unrecognizable and transformative role yet.
It was incredible to watch her embody this role and add a little bit of herself to this complex role. As we saw in Fences, Davis highly respects Wilson’s material and more importantly, she understands it.
The direction of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom had this dual sense of atmosphere. Even though it takes place in a recording studio, it did not feel stuffy and static, like other plays that have been adapted for the screen.
Wolfe created two separate rooms, each with its own separate energy. It was impressive how Wolfe captured his actors’ skill and essence. It felt like the audience was on stage with the actors. The close-ups and tight-knit camerawork was extremely effective. Wolfe played with the fluidity of stage performing, while still creating a grander space within the frame.
The Performances Were a Perfect Melody
Not only did Viola Davis put on an acting clinic, but the late, great Chadwick Boseman was brilliant as Levee. We already know that Davis is one of the best in the industry but Boseman was incredible in this film–his last role.
It is only the second performance this year that has left me completely speechless. Boseman gave a heartbreaking performance. He was energetic, emotional, and completely broken by the traumas of his past. When Levee was in the room with the rest of the band, Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Cutler (Colman Domingo), he was the burst of energy. He was an electrical current in that small room and it would spike during conversations.
The entire cast of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was exceptional. There was never a moment where the energy dwindled. They all remained consistent with the high level intensity throughout. Levee wanted to be a star of his own. He wrote music for executive Mr. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). The one conversation – which was such a pivotal moment in the film- was the band’s discussion about the white executives. The monologue delivered by Chadwick Boseman’s character Levee in being “spooked by the white man”, will be his Oscar reel next year because of how emotional it was.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is such an intoxicating film, once you settle into the story and the performances. Each member of the cast holds you and demands your attention whenever they are speaking. It feels like you are watching a play but Wolfe’s direction elevates it to capture powerful on screen performances.
I won’t lie to any of you, this was extremely difficult to watch because of how wonderful Boseman was in this. It is hard register that this wonderful, talented man is gone and he left us with this brilliant final performance.
There are moments that you will get lost in his character and others where you just watch him and get emotional. Hell, I cried while typing this out. Rest in Power, King. Your last performance is one for the history books and it will be studied in the future. You signed off with August Wilson’s words and your legacy will live on forever.