Before we start, I’d just like to thank Netflix for almost singlehandedly keeping me fed during this wild year of cinema closures of big release postponements. The company that used to send DVDs in the post one an a time is now the leading force in instant home streaming entertainment, and we’ve really fucking needed that this year. The tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman in August caused the entire world to look forward to December, when we would get to see him in his final big screen performance in a film that, on the face of things, looked like it would be everything I loved in one package.
Set in the 1920s and based on the 1982 play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tells a ‘day in the life’ story of legendary blues icon Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), as she travels to Chicago to record some of her greatest hits and in the process butts heads with impetuous and ambitious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) to explosive ends.
The initial hurdle that you need to get over to fully enjoy Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the fact that it very much feels like a play rather than a fully realised feature film, but as someone who loves the theatre just as much as the cinema, I had no problem with this. The claustrophobic nature of the drama means that locations are limited and characters are few, but just as with pictures like August: Osage County, the joy of these stage to screen adaptations is in the star studded casts that are assembled and in the rich thematic content that is front and centre.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom might not be a visual feast in terms of sweeping landscapes or particularly vibrant colours, but there is a richness in the cinematography and costuming that creates such a close and irresistible atmosphere. You find yourself right in the heart of the drama and that grip does not cease until the final credits roll. The wider themes of the piece are striking in our 21st century world of cultural appropriation, especially within the music industry. A black woman, a black, extremely talented woman, being labeled as problematic and unruly because she simply knows her worth and will not be taken advantage of by white bosses. A black man, a black, extremely talented but troubled man, handing his music creations over to a white producer who has no interest in him, but envisions his work being sung by a white group instead. These are all themes we have seen before in something like Dreamgirls, for instance, but in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom they are as visceral as they have ever been.
The film might still feel like a play, but the performances given by its two leading stars are nothing short of Oscar worthy. Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of Levee is obviously getting extra attention in horrendously sad circumstances, but I truly believe the same things would be being said if he were still with us. Levee is a force of nature, a man with hidden depths and a fast talking mouth, and Boseman takes full control and responsibility of the pace of the narrative, thundering us from one sequence to another with million mile an hour emotions. If there were ever a sure thing in the Academy Awards, I think it would be Boseman picking up Best Actor posthumously in 2021. He deserves it. I miss him.
It’s feels weird to say it, but Viola Davis almost feels under-featured as the titular Ma Rainey! In an equal fashion to Boseman, Davis also takes the screen by storm every time she is on it, and her Ma Rainey is a mixture of stoic determinism and fiery rage that you can tell is a culmination of a hard life lived and a career spent fighting against powers trying to change her or bend her to their will. There is something inexplicably, simultaneously glamorous and unglamorous about Davis in the role, you cannot take your eyes off of her. They spend much of the film apart, but the moments in which Levee and Ma come together are pure dynamite. I would love Davis to get serious awards attention for this.
Overall, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is another in a long line of stage to screen adaptations that, whilst not quite being able to break free from their original ‘theatre-esque’ trappings, don’t half pack a punch in terms of drama and performance. A story set in the 1920s that feels depressingly timely in 2020, brought to life by two of the best leading performances of the year. I wish this didn’t have to be Chadwick Boseman’s final performance, but he’s left us a gift to go along with the many other gifts of his rich and varied career. Boseman is a whirlwind, Davis is strikingly powerful and magnetic, and the film is a showcase for both of them.