“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” stars Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts. Released on Netflix on December 18, 2020, the film is about a singer who battles race discrimination in the music world.
The film is directed by George C. Wolfe, who also directed “Lackawanna Blues”, “Nights in Rodanthe”, “You’re Not You”, and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. It is based on the play of the same name by August Wilson. Another week means another reason to get up on our feet and dance to the music. This latest Netflix film takes us to the 1920s, a time when the music industry clashed with racial tension. There were plenty of reasons why I was looking forward to this film, such as its concept and the cast, most notably Chadwick Boseman in his final film role before he tragically passed away back in August. Why does 2020 hate us? After finding success with adapting August Wilson’s “Fences” into an award-worthy film, Hollywood decided to adapt another one of his plays in hopes of capturing lightning in the bottle for the second time. Why? Because we all need a reminder that race discrimination is still a big no-no. Was it as spectacular as Ma Rainey’s music? Let’s find out.
The story takes place over the course of a single afternoon in a Chicago recording studio. A blues band, which consists of Cutler (Domingo), Toledo (Turman), Slow Drag (Potts), and trumpeter Levee (Boseman), is waiting for their lead singer Ma Rainey (Davis) to show up so they can record their songs for their album. When Ma arrives late to the party, several issues begin to surface between her, the band, and their white producers Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Irvin (Jeremy Shamos). One of which was Levee’s dream to start his own band. Not only is the film inspired by the life of Rainey and her song of the same name, but it also explores issues of race, art, religion, and the exploitation of black recording artists by white producers through dialogue. When you have a film that deals with these types of themes, especially the ones involving Black culture, you have to make sure that it pays absolute respect to the culture and offers a story that’s inspiring, emotional, and thought-provoking. Fortunately, for us viewers, this is exactly what this film did. Although it came extremely close to being one of my favorite films of the year, George C. Wolfe was able to represent the situation of black musicians in a white man’s world in an honest, energetic, and sometimes emotional way. The film was well-paced, the script from Ruben Santiago-Hudson was filled with superb monologues, and it showcased its jazzy liveliness through Branford Marsalis’s score and the cast themselves. This was the second time that Viola Davis had starred in a film adaptation of August Wilson’s play, the first being “Fences”, and unsurprisingly, she’s two for two. She was a marvel to behold as she captured the fiery and demanding attitude of the famous blues singer through her acting range. The only issue was that despite the title being “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, she didn’t get as much screen time as her band. I would like to see more of this character as well as how she came up with the song, but what can you do? Another real show-stopper is the brilliant Chadwick Boseman, who is now a surefire pick to earn a posthumous Oscar win. His stellar and raw performance as Levee showed how incredibly talented and capable Boseman was in terms of acting, especially during a scene where he’s screaming towards God. Whether it’s Jackie Robinson or Black Panther, he can flawlessly transform himself into a role that he’s given and give his audience one heck of a show. He was indeed one of the greats, and he will surely be missed. Turman, Domingo, and Potts were also entertaining enough to play catch up with the film’s main stars. The set pieces and the costume designs also played a big part of the film’s success. They respectively represent the vibrant, blues-like aesthetics of 1920s Chicago, especially the costumes, which looked magnificent in my eyes. So, you might be wondering why I didn’t think it was a perfect movie. Well, it would have something to do with the story and how much of an impact it had compared to its topic. Now, before you raise your torches and pitchforks, let me explain. I thought the story was highly enjoyable, its themes were noble, and the characters were wonderfully developed through dialogue. My personal problem was the third act and how it wrapped things up which, from my personal perspective, wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. Compared to the first two acts, the finale didn’t quite reach the impact it was going for emotionally. I can understand why they ended it like that, but they could’ve at least expand on a few things, such as Ma Rainey’s character and the race-related topics, in order for the film to earn the impact of its commentary. I also believe that the filmmakers could’ve developed Dussie Mae (played by Taylour Paige), Ma’s girlfriend, a bit more. It felt like they wasted that character’s potential to play a key role in the struggling partnership between Rainey and Levee. The film is at least an hour and a half long, which is a suitable runtime for something like this due to its pacing, but I don’t think that’s long enough for it to further explore this type of situation and earn a complete emotional connection to its thematic core.
Overall, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a vibrant and thoughtful depiction of racial tensions in the music industry. Led by an incredible cast, a well-written screenplay, and an aesthetic production design, the film mostly succeeds in paying tribute to Black culture and jazz music in general, although it could’ve used more of that Ma Rainey pizazz. You know, since the film is called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. Personally, I thought “Fences” was a better movie in terms of August Wilson film adaptations, but I still enjoyed what George C. Wolfe brought to the table. It’s worth watching on Netflix if you’re familiar with the play it’s based on or if you really want to see the late Boseman onscreen one last time. Rest in peace, good sir, and thank you for sharing your gifted talent with the world.