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Netflix Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

December 18, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

When Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer at the far too young age of 43 in August of this year, it was one of those celebrity deaths that took everyone by surprise and hit really hard.

Boseman’s compelling portrayal of the superhero Black Panther made him not only a movie star but a cultural icon as well. The actor also earned accolades for playing a trio of real life icons in the biopics 42, Get On Up and Marshall, and was well on his way to affirming his place as one of our finest performers.

To say that he was taken from us far too soon is clearly an understatement, but the actor made the personal choice to keep working right up to the end, choosing to keep his diagnosis secret from all but his closest family members.

Which brings us to Boseman’s final performance in the film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is premiering on Netflix today. Boseman plays a hot-tempered trumpet player named Levee, and he tears up the screen with an explosive performance that is both tragic and angry. It would have been a brilliant performance regardless. But the knowledge that he did it while battling cancer gives it an added weight and poignancy, making it hard to watch the film without reflecting on his legacy.

The film, which has been adapted from the classic August Wilson play of the same name, is set in 1927 and unfolds mostly at a recording studio in Chicago. Levee is a member of the band that’s backing up the African-American blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), and he wants his uptempo arrangement of her song “Black Bottom” to be used on the recording, including a new trombone intro. But Ma Rainey, who shows up fashionably late to the afternoon session with her companion Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and young nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) in tow, has different ideas.

She insists that Sylvester will record a spoken word intro to the song instead, but the trouble is that he has a stutter, making it hard for him to get it right. This leads to further tensions between Levee, Ma Rainey and the other members of the band, as Ma’s increasingly hurried white manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), tries to act as mediator between them all. As tensions rise, more fuel is added to what proves to be a powder keg studio session.

What ensues is something that, on the surface, seems to be a battle of divas, but it goes far deeper than that. Ma is reluctant to put her voice on a record, worried that once they have her vocals they will exploit her for profit. Meanwhile, Levee is trying to get the white producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), to take him seriously as a songwriter, and wants the recognition of his composition ending up on the record to prove that he is capable of leading his own band. The elephant in the room is the issue of racism in a still segregated America, a theme that bursts to the forefront in several powerful moments.

Boseman delivers a pair of monologues that feel like showstoppers within the film, directly confronting these deeper tensions that simmer beneath the surface, and forcing us to acknowledge the complexities of his very abrasive character. From the start, Levee is very antagonizing in how he interacts with his bandmates, Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and these arguments grow increasingly heated as the film goes on. 

The brilliance of Boseman’s performance lies in its fearlessness. There is a go-for-broke quality to what he is doing here and, watching it in the wake of his death, it’s easy to imagine he knew it would be his final role and was trying to cement his place among the greats. The actor leaves it all on the screen here, brilliantly allowing Levee’s anger, pain and frustration, which is masked by the character’s arrogance, to seep through the cracks.

Davis is equally transformative, delivering a powerhouse performance in the title role of Ma Rainey, a real life figure and so-called “Mother of the Blues.” Davis goes beyond just portraying her as a stubborn, egotistical, hard to work with star, and brings layers of nuance to the role. Ma demands that people treat her how she wants to be treated, because she understands where she has been placed in society as a Black woman from the South in the 1920s, and will be damned if she lets anyone put her in a box.

The similarities between Ma and Levee, which are so well observed in Wilson’s writing, are precisely what lead them to clash over the course of the story. In terms of awards placements, Davis is the female lead, mainly because she is the most prominent female character in the film, but Boseman is very much the movie’s lead and the main focal point of the story. The rest of the ensemble cast does solid work around them, with Turman, Domingo and Potts all given moments to shine.

The film is directed by playwright and theatre director George C. Wolfe, and while the production feels somewhat stagey, he does a decent job of shepherding Wilson’s play to the screen. He is aided by some good cinematography courtesy of Tobias A. Schliessler, who does his best to add some visual interest to the film, while working within the confines of the story’s limited settings. It features solid work in the makeup and costume departments as well. The film was notably produced by Denzel Washington, who also directed and starred in the August Wilson adaptation Fences, which netted Davis an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

I would say that, as a film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom never quite moves beyond its stage origins and, at only 86 minutes to credits (94 minutes in total), it feels a bit too short. I found the ending to be slightly abrupt, and was left wanting a bit more. But, as an incredible acting showcase for Boseman and Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an impactful and highly engaging drama, that is enlivened by an excellent jazz score by Branford Marsalis. The film itself is good, and the performances are even better.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

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