Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)
Pssst, want to check out Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in our new look?
See all comments
So right off the bat I would say that this film is most notable for its performances. In fact I would say that the performances are probably the sole reason that one should check it out. Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman are absolutely impeccable here. Davis is almost unrecognizable as the Mother Of Blues, and single-handedly steals every scene she appears in. However, what’s interesting is that considering the title of the movie, Ma Rainey isn’t really the primary focus of the film. No, instead the vast majority of screen time is dedicated to the late Chadwick Boseman‘s “Levee”, Ma’s fiery and effervescent trumpet player. Boseman really gives it his all in what is unfortunately his last role (having passed earlier this year from complications of a previously undisclosed cancer diagnosis), and man does he go out with a bang. The energy in this performance is off the charts, with Boseman hitting nearly every emotion on the spectrum before the credits roll (I honestly felt exhausted for him, and knowing now the illness he was dealing with, it makes his performance all the more impressive). This is undoubtedly the finest performance I’ve seen from him, and I would not be surprised to see him (alongside Viola Davis) nominated for an Academy Award. The supporting ensemble of actors are also excellent in their respective roles, and the film’s score and musical numbers are gorgeous.
Now, all that being said, I’m not entirely sure how well this story works as a film. Even though I wasn’t aware going into the film that it’s script was based off of August Wilson‘s 1984 play of the same name, it wasn’t particularly surprising when I found out. Unfortunately, what we’re presented with here feels less like a play that was adapted into a film and more like a play that was simply caught on camera. That is to say, there isn’t much of a cinematic experience to be had. Outside of the first 20 minutes of the film, most of the story takes place at one location; more specifically within two rooms of a recording studio, one of which (the basement rehearsal room), is not exactly what I’d describe as eye-candy. The cinematography is pretty lacking as well, saturated heavily with shot/reverse shots for a large majority of the film. But the lack of cinematic stimulation doesn’t end there. I also wasn’t crazy about the dialogue. Much of the dialogue of this film is occupied by long, droning monologues reminiscent of Shakespearean plays, and while they do offer ample opportunities for the cast to showcase their talents (Boseman being a primary example), they also contribute towards making the characters feel less like real people and more like poetic representations of ideals. Now, these issues might not have been so problematic for me if I was expecting to see this story as a play, but alas, this is not a play... so I had different expectations. I understand that not all audiences will share in my feelings regarding these aspects of the film, but personally, they are what kept me from connecting to it on a deeper emotional level. Still, I would definitely recommend giving it a watch, if, at the very least, to witness what I’m sure will become a historical performance in the Boseman legacy.
Boseman gives us one last amazing performance. Great cast all around and cinematography that really makes the confined and dim space seem very vibrant and focused. The problem comes with it being a stage adaptation. Its shorter than than the stage version by almost an hour and it feels like some of its more dramatic moments are rushed in
Just good. Loved seeing Chadwick Boseman one last time (he's fire in this!); but no amount of good performances, sets and costumes can disguise the fact that this is little more than “filmed theatre” (See also August: Osage County and Fences). It’s still worth your time.
to see which of your friends have seen this movie!