‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Review: Boseman’s Electrifying Final Bow
By Daniel Rester
Chadwick Boseman lit up the big screen this past decade with strong performances in films like 42 (2013), Get On Up (2014), Marshall (2017), and of course Black Panther (2018). Unfortunately we lost him earlier this year due to complications from colon cancer. Even while he was sick, the actor was staying dedicated to his work.
Boseman left us while arguably his two finest performances came out this year. The first is as the supporting character “Stormin’ Norm” in the war drama Da 5 Bloods. The second is as lead Levee Green in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. There has been Oscar nomination buzz for both performances, and frankly Boseman deserves posthumous nominations for both.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name. The plot mostly takes place at a Chicago recording studio in 1927. Boseman’s Levee is a hotheaded trumpeter in a band that plays for famous blues singer Gertrude Pridgett (Viola Davis), better known as Ma Rainey. While Levee and some of the other characters are fictional, Ma was an real-life entertainer known as the “Mother of the Blues.”
Levee wants to leave Ma and her band in order to make his own music with more “fire.” His contributions to Ma’s music leads to some arguments because he has already started doing things his own way musically. Further complicating matters is Ma’s temper with her manager and the studio manager as she insists on her stuttering nephew contributing a vocal track.
Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom shows its origins as a play with its minimal settings and dialogue-heavy flow. Even so, the writer and director manage to absorb the audience into Wilson’s work. They let Wilson’s words and the actors do the heavy lifting while also providing a narrative tightness and stylish choices both on the page and the screen.
The dialogue is full of tension and observations. Racism, God’s love or lack thereof, and creative differences are driving forces in the drama. All of the actors are up to the task. Boseman and Davis are both magnetic as two artists who are selfish but also make good points about the fairness provided to black people in America. Maxayn Lewis provided the magnificent singing voice for the moments where Ma is recording, while Davis nails the physical side of the performances.
Davis and Boseman are backed up by Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts as the other band members. All of their characters are older than Levee and try to talk some sense into him. These performances are more understated than the work by the two leads, but they are essential in helping bring some of the arguments back down to earth. Davis and Boseman show flashes of subtlety too, but they mostly let it rip with their powerful performances, but thankfully without falling into caricature. One monologue Boseman has about Levee’s childhood is especially searing.
At just 94 minutes, Wolfe’s film doesn’t waste any time. The beautiful production design and costume design, snappy editing, and spot-on sound design (the drinking of a Coke has never sounded more obnoxious) aid the director and his actors in bringing the material out of its play origins a bit. Branford Marsalis’ jazzy and ever-present music score is welcome too.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom may take place in 1927, but many of its themes still ring true. Wolfe lets them come organically with the plot and characters, never resorting to a Spike Lee-like style of forcing newer aspects into the proceedings. Aside from its thoughtful messages though, the film is really more of a showcase for two of the finest actors of recent times. Hopefully Davis continues to work for a few more decades, while the late Boseman has left us with a performance that we’ll be talking about for decades.
My Grade: 8.7/10 (letter grade equivalent: A-)
Running Time: 1h 34min