The late Chadwick Boseman galvanized the screen in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Directed by George C. Wolfe and written by playwright & actor Ruben Santiago–Hudson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an adaption of August Wilson’s 1984 same-titled play. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom focuses on legendary singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), known as the “mother of the blues,” and her support band. Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as the band comprised of musicians, including ambitious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), await the singer’s arrival. The rest of the band includes Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts).
Levee has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and is determined to stake his claim on the music industry even if he has to spur his fellow musicians. Naturally, the fearless & fiery Ma is late to the session, and the events of the day soon turn into an eruption of stories, truths, and lies that will forever change the course of their lives.
Making her second appearance in an August Wilson adaptation, Viola Davis is excellent as the fearless & fiery Ma. Whether she is engaging in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music or bringing out her nephew’s confidence, Davis solidifies why she is one of the best actresses working today. Effortlessly commanding the few scenes she’s in, some of my favorite moments in the film involve Davis’s scenes with Chadwick Boseman. Those who felt slighted by the only moment that Davis & Boseman shared in 2014’s Get On Up won’t be upset this time around. Despite the film’s title, Ma Rainey’s
Black Bottom truly belongs to Chadwick Boseman, whose final performance on screen is a tour-de-force.
Within the first half-hour, Boseman delivered a monologue to his band members in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room that caused me to look over at my wife and son and say, “That’s his Oscar Nomination moment.” While Boseman garnered word-wide fame for his portrayal of Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the actor’s early dramatic work on the show Lincoln Heights where I just knew that he was going to be a star. While Boseman has delivered excellent dramatic performances portraying Black American icons, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom confirms the actor was well on his way to more robust dramatic work once his Marvel days were over.
I identified with Levee’s ambition to start his own band as it mirrored my desire to create my own entertainment website. Levee’s moments where he relives his previous traumas made me think of my struggles with PTSD and chronic anxiety and how sometimes when a man doesn’t deal with his issues from the past, they will come back to haunt you.
Boseman’s final performance is the perfect swan song to a career cut short.
The rest of the cast is good, particularly Taylour Paige as the object of both Levee’s desire even though she is with Ma. Paige quickly taps into the role of a kept woman who can’t resist the charms of the suave and debonair Levee. Even though he’s been acting since before I was alive, I’ve always enjoyed seeing Glynn Turman on-screen, while Colman Domingo taps into an elder who butts heads with Levee and does excellent in the role. Domingo is a great supporting character actor, but someone needs to cast him as a lead soon.
In terms of direction, George C. Wolfe showcases his theatrical eye to his advantage, bringing to life the words of August Wilson as adapted by Ruben Santiago–Hudson. I must acknowledge the film’s tone is theater-like and in the same vein as 2016’s Fences. I will point out that the film is only ninety-five minutes, and the director ensures that his cast gives it their all. Hopefully, George C. Wolfe and Ruben Santiago-Hudson reunite for another Wilson and soon.
The playwright August Wilson once said, “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.” And when the credits rolled on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the quote instantly popped into my head. Filled with strong performances, a classy script, and great direction, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is highly recommended and one of my year’s ten best.
Final Grade A
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is currently in limited theatrical release. It will be available to view on December 18th