With MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM Netflix releases Chadwick Boseman’s final film. In our review we reveal whether the musical drama produced by Denzel Washington is a memorable farewell to the acting star.
OT: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (USA 2020)
Chicago in 1927. The popular musician Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is supposed to record a new album, but arrives late. Your band passes the wait with witty anecdotes, hurtful accusations and disturbing confessions – as well as arguments about how the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” should be recorded. The hot-headed trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), previously only someone from the second row, sees his moment to make blues music ready for the dance-crazy lifestyle of the big city – and to assert himself to the record label as someone who has his own band can lead. As producers Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) try to take control, tensions rise in the studio…
It’s hard to watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom just months after Chadwick Boseman’s death without inevitably focusing on his performance. The “Get on Up” and “Black Panther” star died on August 28, 2020 at the age of just 43 – as his family announced, he was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016, but he kept this almost a secret. The loss of this charismatic and talented actor, who became an icon for an audience of millions, not least because of his presence in the Marvel films, was difficult. And now it’s time to say goodbye again, because Boseman has played his last role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”.
Chadwick Boseman plays musician Levee.
At least fans of mime can say goodbye to Boseman on a strong note: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” adds another film to Boseman’s filmography in which he illuminates the past and present reality of black lives through a multi-faceted, moving acting performance. After playing, among others, the groundbreaking baseball player Jackie Robinson (in “42”), the influential lawyer and later judge Thurgood Marshall (in “Marshall”) and music superstar James Brown (in “Get on Up”), Boseman gives in ” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” a background musician who dreams of more. But in addition to his own impulsiveness, Levee also has to deal with a huge amount of prejudice and the consequences of a life ravaged by tragedy – and Boseman brings this complicated, stormy man to life with irrepressible charisma and blood-curdling depths.
“’Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ adds another film to Boseman’s filmography in which he illuminates the past and present reality of black lives through a multi-faceted, moving acting performance.”
To move away from the Boseman factor and focus on the film as a whole, the origins of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” are closely linked to Denzel Washington’s award-winning directorial work “Fences.” In advance of the “Fences” filming, it became known that Washington wanted to transfer numerous other stage plays by “Fences” author August Wilson to the film medium. One of the pieces Washington had his eye on was “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Originally planned as an HBO production, Washington (who, unlike “Fences,” is the sole producer here) ultimately moved his deal to Netflix. And although some parameters changed behind the scenes, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is just as noticeable as Wilson’s signature as “Fences”. Like Washington before it, the director is George C. Wolfe (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”) not interested in denying the original’s stage play DNA or in displacing Wilson’s unmistakable view of the experiences of African-Americans with a dominant style of his own. Like “Fences”, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is also extremely dialogue-heavy and allows socio-demographic linguistic peculiarities, rapid-fire word exchanges, witty torrents of speech and tragic monologues to merge into a poetic unity.
Viola Davis stars as Ma Rainey.
Since “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has a significantly shorter plot period (the film takes place nearly in real time), however, this film has to shoulder less long-term character change than the more intensely plotting working-class drama “Fences”. As a result, the monologues in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” seem less cramped – in “Fences” there are isolated moments in which Washington, Viola Davis and Mykelti Williamson have to abandon the naturalistic style of the film and act very theatrically, to convey the meaning of the monologue, the situational feel of her character, and the suggested larger character change. In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, the monologues have a theatrical feel throughout, but Wolfe allows this to appear very organically as a facet of the characters: Wolfe shows the central characters as an equally well-rehearsed and irritable group of stage bunnies who have music and show in their blood – and therefore, at this important recording date, slip seamlessly from “Let’s entertain!” teasing into self-promotional disclosures of their innermost being.
“Wolfe shows the central characters as a well-rehearsed and irritable group of stage bunnies who have music and show in their blood.”
Just as “Fences” condenses the experiences, fears and hopes of the black working class of the 1950s, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” presents itself as a condensation of what was going on with blues and jazz musicians of the 1920s. Ma Rainey and her musicians are a walking powder keg of emotions – and in just 94 minutes the film makes it very convincingly clear why. Ma Rainey is considered a great in her field – but it gnaws at her her voice is celebrated by the whites, but not she. And in the band, despite a superficial cohesion, there are deep divides based on the age of each member, their hometown (and accompanying experiences with racism, from half-open to blatantly violent), and the basic self-image that ranges from supporting musician to entertainer to “I have to be a role model for my people and pave new paths.”
The setting of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is of the finest quality.
Where Washington emphasizes the emotions of his characters several times in “Fences”, Wolfe (appropriate to the setting) places greater emphasis on rhythm: highs and lows in this recording session, phases of restraint and offensiveness, are highlighted by the dynamic play of the cast and a stylish one Aesthetics underlined. The tasteful costumes are expressive, cameraman Tobias Schliessler, with his unsteady, but never hectic, image control, does not allow this almost chamber play to become static, and the editing by Andrew Mondshein keeps the pace high, but at the same time leaves enough space for the meaningful Looks or emotionally charged vocal cadences can resonate. All in all, Wolfe’s direction remains stagey, but it is lively enough to do justice to the vitality of the characters.
“The tasteful costumes are expressive, cameraman Branford Marsalis prevents this almost chamber drama from becoming static with his unsteady, but never hectic, image control, and the editing by Andrew Mondshein keeps the pace high.”
Maybe it’s this dance between “always keeping a strict eye on the original” and “maintaining some momentum in the spirit of the characters” that makes Ma Rainey and her band feel more real than the sometimes very pointed characters in the nonetheless disturbing one “Fences”: When trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Levee move between cool routine, joy of life, grief and anger because of the color of their skin, their profession and their thinness Purse’s turbulent life is disturbing. And Viola Davis is once again a stunner as the real blues legend Ma Rainey: she plays the proud and stoic diva as a woman with great self-confidence – but also with an unmistakeable view of her life situation. Therefore, her diva-ness is not arrogance, but a mixture of self-protection and “I make the most of what little I am granted”. And Davis conveys Ma Rainey’s complexity brilliantly.
Conclusion: In the musical drama “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a band’s arguments reveal the depths that give rise to racism and class differences – and Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman deliver award-winning performances with this material.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” can be seen on Netflix from December 18, 2020.