Chadwick Boseman’s final screen appearance cements his legacy as one of the great actors of his generation.
Viola Davis looks to have her Oscar nomination formula on lock: this is her second trip to the big show for starring in a an adaptation of a stage play opposite a dynamic leading man. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has many of the strengths and weaknesses of Fences: it’s packed with powerhouse performances from its leads, but adapting a play to a movie still feels performative and artificial.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Legendary “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is set to record a new studio album, in an attempt to break into the lucrative Northern markets of Chicago and New York. In tow is her new horn player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a virtuoso player with driving ambition to become a legend himself. His efforts to modernize Ma’s sound and the shady machinations of the white producers of the record label lead to an explosive recording session.
The big draws for Ma Rainey’s are obviously Davis and Boseman. They do not disappoint. Both inhabit their characters deeply, delivering passionate and gutsy performances. I also enjoyed that these are characters we haven’t seen before, and haven’t necessarily seen from these actors before. While Davis has played fiery characters aplenty, Ma Rainey is a whole different character with her ruthless and jaded personality, and her earthy, sensuous charisma. Levee Green is fierce and haunted and shrewd, playing all the angles to dominate the band and, he hopes, the music industry. Boseman shines in the role, showing yet another facet of his immense talent.
The rest of the cast may not be big names, but they put in great work. The other members of the band are richly detailed and come to life from the able scripting. Each gets a chance to shine, and deepen the story.
Stage to Screen.
What held me back from loving Ma Rainey’s was my usual reservations about adaptation of stage plays. The way they are written and meant to be performed lends itself to speeches and dramatization instead of dialogue and verisimilitude. As well crafted as the characters were, I never could shake the feeling of watching a performance instead of witnessing a story. I also can’t sink into the story like I can with other films since the obvious structure of the scenes, meant to open and close with hard breaks, again pulls me out of the flow of the narrative and reminds me “this is a play.”
I enjoyed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, especially as a showcase for a talented cast to play some really gripping characters. I appreciate how all the pieces are carefully crafted, even if I sometimes resent being reminded they’re constructs. I may not like adaptations of plays, but I can certainly appreciate when I’ve seen a good one. Ma Rainey’s is a good one, and a triumphant swan song for a generational talent in Chadwick Boseman, who passed too tragically soon.