Few celebrity deaths make the world feel like it stops spinning. Not because the person is a celebrity but its more about the contribution and legacy the person has left behind. It’s often speculated where that actor or actress would go if they were still with us but what they leave behind is able to be cherished in perpetuity. The impact Chadwick Boseman had on the world cannot be measured as he played some of the biggest historical black icons including Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson and James Brown on top of the fictional T’Challa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His talent will surely be missed but with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, we are blessed with one final performance from the king.
Based on the stage play of the same name by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom centers around the influential Mother of blue’s singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) with her band at a recording session in Chicago. While the band practices in the basement, Ma Rainey deals with studio manager Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) who wants to get the group out of there as quick as possible. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second August Wilson play to be adapted into a film by Denzel Washington following 2013’s Fences.
The way Ma Rainey’s is shot feels like you’re at the theater watching the original play. When each character has the spotlight, the focus is solely on that character. The use of the smaller, more contained set adds to the illusion of this feeling like a stage performance that is shot for shot authentic. Scenes with the band members Levee (Chadwick Boseman), Cutler (Coleman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), & Toledo (Glynn Turman) are intimate enough that the audience knows each character on a personal level. The four band members don’t hold back either, they are steadfast and headstrong in their beliefs.
“Listen, Ma. These records are going to be hits. They are going to sell like crazy. Hell, even Sylvester will be a star. Fifteen minutes. That is all I am asking, Ma. Just fifteen minutes.”
Conversations range from a variety of topics but the one that’s highlighted the most is religion and its impact on each character’s outlooks on life. If there is a god, why doesn’t he care about black people? The conversation starts friendly enough, the four band mates appear to be close with each other but as events unfold the energy shifts into chaos which shifts into misaimed anger. The evolution follows the way a stage play would with its main conflict. The person we least suspect to have the tragic outcome has it and they payoff far exceeds expectations.
Each performance is brilliant but the two that are the clear standouts are Chadwick and Viola. There is no denying the talent of Chadwick Boseman as he delivers the performance of a lifetime that should get him a best actor nomination at the upcoming Academy Awards. Viola, on the other hand goes completely method gaining 60 pounds for this role. There is a sense of passion Viola taps into that lights the fire for everyone around her. Whenever method acting is brought up most associate Christian Bale, Heath Ledger or Joaquin Phoenix but Viola Davis deservedly belongs among those actors.
Chadwick brings swagger and charisma to Levee. The way he speaks with confidence and optimism makes you feel a strong connection with him to see his solo career take off. Every word of dialogue spoken by Chadwick is mesmerizing, you just can’t take your eyes off of him as he moves so swiftly throughout the basement. Sadly, Levee lives in a time period where white people take the credit of people of color. Levee gets a taste of reality when his music is bought by Sturdyvant believing that the songs are better suited for a white person to sing. Levee’s pain and struggle is felt when pushed over the edge. When Ma Raineys’s nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) finally overcomes his stutter and gives a perfect recording did Mel intentionally not capture the performance?
Along with powerful performances the costume and set design is another feat of brilliance. The messy looking makeup and sweat on Ma Rainey not only looks uncomfortable to be in but adds to the verisimilitude to the time period before central air came as a relief in the summer months. The stage design gives an authentic feeling of an early 20th century recording studio while cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler gives the impression of claustrophobia in the basement scenes. Each scene is crafted with precision to capture the essence of a stage performance.
“Soon as I get my band together, and record them songs Mr. Sturdyvant done told me I can make, I’m going to be like Ma, and tell the white man just what he can do. Ma tell Mr. Irvin she leaving? Mr. Irvin get down on his knees and beg her to stay. That’s the way I’m going to be. Make the white man respect me.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom features two very powerful, captivating performances by Chadwick Boseman that adds to his legacy and Viola as well from the supporting cast. The way Ma Rainey’s is shot and set up feels like a stage show with its intimacy, character development and interactions. The only thing missing is the opening number and intermission. If I were to rate Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I’d rate it a 5 out of 5.
So, tell me guys, have you seen Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and if so, what do you think about it? Do you agree or disagree with me? Comment below or send me an email and let me know what you think.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is directed by George C. Wolfe is Rated R and has an 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was released on December 18, 2020 and has a runtime of 1 hour and 34 minutes. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom can be streamed on Netflix.