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  • Writer's pictureS.J.

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Review: Viola Davis & Chadwick Boseman Go On Record

Viola Davis singing with Chadwick Boseman and Colman Domingo playing horns behind her

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will undoubtedly generate one of the weirdest set of feelings this year while you’re watching it. One of the stars, Chadwick Boseman, obviously passed away when the film was in post-production earlier this year so you might feel a high level of appreciation for it beforehand even. Adapted from August Wilson’s play of the same name, written for screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe, it takes place on a hot day in 1920's Chicago as blues star Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) has a recording session with a backing band in which Boseman’s character, Levee, plays trumpet. At times you might wish that it felt more like a film than stage play but since it features some of the best acting of the year while also having something to say, you might just wallow in its blues.

If you happen to be the cynical kind, you might think that the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the movie might make my following feelings a bit too reactionary but I must affirm that not being the truth in this case. This is all, front to back and side to side, Boseman’s phenomenal and personal show. The way he dances his way to the band’s backroom, lets Levee’s ego shine on directly to Ma Rainey’s face or changes looks with certain woman in the studio, it’s all rather exceptional. I haven’t seen quite all of his films but this is by far the best he has ever been to my knowledge.

There’s no doubt that it is worthy of all the awards this upcoming season and it is just both sad and impressive how this will be his last mark of legacy. Writing a whole review about just Boseman would be justified but this time isn’t that time. However lastly, keep your eyes peeled on a scene referencing God which encapsulates both Levee, the character, and Boseman, the actor, absolutely beautifully.

In regards to what the film itself is saying, the highlight is that the story relies on the well thought-out characters. Making a point about how music made by black people is irresponsibly filtered or even stolen by white people in the music business is shown through Ma Rainey and Levee’s interactions with managers and producers. Those scenes are where Davis really gets her time to shine, they also make some of the better filmmaking aspects come through better. You do wish though that Ma Rainey scenes weren’t so sparse because way too often the film feels and looks like a theatre show.

There are monologues that get in the way of conversations as well as the music (songs and score) and awkwardly timed cuts to weird shot angles that pretty much take you out of these hot, sweaty rooms where much of the character work plays out. Also the supposed-to-be-impactful ending ends up looking like a high school play with the way that it is blocked and staged.

Smileys: Chadwick Boseman, characterisation, Viola Davis

Frowneys: Atmosphere

One instance where the rating might change substantially with a rewatch much later, I have no idea if I over- or under-appreciated the script and the message.


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