"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" (2020)- Movie Review

Directed by George C. Wolfe
Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (based on August Wilson’s play)
Starring Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman and Colman Domingo

‘A Marvelous Musical Adaptation’

Few superstars that died in 2020 left behind a legacy as indelible as Chadwick Boseman. Ever since his star-making turn in 2018’s “Black Panther”, Boseman appeared to be a promising actor with a long-lasting career ahead of him. With his handsome appearance, charismatic persona and larger-than-life presence, Boseman seemed to have everything an actor needs to succeed in Hollywood. However, recently Boseman’s career came to a tragic closure when he passed away from Cancer. Boseman’s shocking death remains a crushing loss for the film industry till this day. Nevertheless, it has sparked newfound interest in the actor’s illustrious career.

Now, Boseman is back on the big-screen and his heartbreaking presence is deeply felt in his final film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. An intimate, heartfelt and powerful period piece, it celebrates the legacy of the late actor. With his fifth feature, director George C. Wolfe has crafted an astonishing adaptation of August Wilson’s Broadway production. Packed with exquisite production values, engrossing storytelling and phenomenal performances, it is one of the year’s best movies. Although “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. At 94 minutes, it is slightly rushed and suffers from an abrupt conclusion. Nonetheless, it offers old-fashioned entertainment that will satisfy fans of the Broadway production.

Set in 1927 Chicago, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” chronicles the life of a legendary black singer that confronts prejudice. Viola Davis stars in the titular role as Ma Rainey, a strong-willed black musician with a talent for performing blues music. Accompanied by the ferocious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), Ma Rainey’s band strives to record music without any external control. However, Ma Rainey’s vision is tested when she conflicts with her white recording management. As Ma Rainey defies authorities, she challenges racial stereotypes of the era.

Director George C. Wolfe is no stranger to stage productions. Wolfe is an acclaimed playwright that is best known for his award-winning musical productions (ex. 1992’s “Jelly’s Last Jam”). “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, however, marks his first stage-to-screen adaptation and foray into the lives of renowned black musicians. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to bring August Wilson’s musical to the big-screen, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Wolfe draws viewers into the world of a black jazz band that encounters discrimination in 1920’s Chicago. From intimate close-ups to stunning establishing shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s 1920’s setting. Working alongside cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler, Wolfe creates a breathtaking film in which each frame captures the beauty of the stage production. Wolfe excels at immersing viewers into the world of African-American singers, and his latest feature is worth watching on Netflix for this reason alone.

If stories of influential black musicians do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. The music sequences, costumes and musical score are all carefully chosen, combining to create an immersive cinematic experience. Wolfe’s decision to shoot the music concerts from a close distance is risky, but it works immensely. Assisted by production designer Mark Ricker, Wolfe effectively employs close-ups to immerse viewers into the recording sessions. In most live-theater plays, the audience is always kept at a considerable distance from the performers. This often keeps viewers from forming an emotional connection with the characters. Using close-ups, Wolfe creates a strong emotional bond between the viewers and performers. Moreover, the musical score is also worth mentioning. Branford Marsalis’ blues score is highly effective. It gives the film a joyous and upbeat atmosphere. Through awe-inspiring production values, Wolfe keeps viewers absorbed in the Jazz Age.

Another admirable element of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the screenplay. Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to effectively translate monologues from the stage to screen. When adapting famous plays to the big-screen, screenwriters tend to struggle to incorporate complex monologues into films. Monologues that work on stage don’t always translate well onto the big-screen. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. Santiago-Hudson successfully employs monologues to convey the themes of August Wilson’s stage play. For instance, Levee’s heartbreaking speeches reveal the hardships that African-American musicians faced in the 1920’s. Through monologues, Santiago-Hudson pays tribute to August Wilson’s stage production. Monologues are tricky devices to employ effectively in stage adaptations. When used inappropriately, they can often become wearisome and hinder the viewer’s engagement. However, they work tremendously in this movie. Using a dialogue-driven screenplay, Wolfe keeps viewers engrossed in the experiences of blues musicians.

It is hard to not praise the phenomenal performances from the cast. The film is mainly an award-worthy showcase for its two leads.
Chadwick Boseman delivers the finest performance of his career as Levee Green. In his final film appearance, Boseman pours his heart and soul into the role of a lifetime. It is not easy to portray a prejudiced African-American trumpeter in the 1920’s. It’s an emotionally demanding role that requires the actor to perform long-winded theatrical soliloquies. However, Boseman pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he conveys the ambition, overconfidence and righteous anger of an African-American musician that yearns to be successful. It’s an extraordinary performance that represents a fitting farewell for an actor that left Hollywood too soon.

Viola Davis is remarkable in the role of a legendary blues singer that opposes racial prejudice. While Boseman gets the showier role, Davis is equally astonishing and worthy of awards-recognition. As Ma Rainey, Davis showcases a flair for transforming into celebrated performers. Whether she is performing a melodic tune or arguing with her white recording managers, Davis shines in every aspect of the role. Davis has always thrived at playing ferocious women, and this role allows her to exhibit her strengths as an actress. It’s a show-stopping performance from one of the most talented black actresses working today.

Despite its dazzling performances, however, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” isn’t quite the masterpiece that critics suggest. If there’s a minor drawback to the movie, it suffers from a frantic running-time. At 94 minutes, the story is slightly rushed and leaves little room for strong character development. Moreover, the film is undermined by an ambiguous conclusion. Wolfe’s decision to conclude the movie with the death of a major character is bold and unexpected. However, it doesn’t entirely work. Instead of bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, it simply raises questions and leaves viewers in a state of shock. Musical adaptations thrive based on the lasting power of their endings, and in this regard “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” falls short of expectations.

Nevertheless, fans of the stage production will definitely enjoy “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and so will movie-goers seeking old-fashioned entertainment. A glorious celebration of black artistry, it honors the legacy of a deceased superstar. At a time when the world hasn’t recovered from Chadwick Boseman’s death, it’s a heartfelt tribute to an icon whose glowing presence will forever be sorely missed from Cinema.

4/5 stars

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