The Reel Review
This film adaptation of the Tony-nominated, 1982 August Wilson play stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther), in his final role, as the legendary 1920s blues singer Ma Rainey and her ambitious, hot-headed trumpet player. As they gather in Chicago on a hot summer day in 1927 to record the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” frustrations erupt, underscored by a climate of pervasive racial injustice and exploitation by white record executives.
Davis, donning gold teeth and lots of padding to transform herself into “The Mother of the Blues,” is captivating, as expected. But it is Boseman’s emotional performance that is a career best, as the two strong-willed characters repeatedly butt heads over their interpretation of the song. Expect well-deserved Oscar nominations for each, as well as one for Oscar-winner Ann Roth (The English Patient) for her well researched and exceptionally detailed costume design.
The film is an interesting glimpse inside a day in the life of successful Black Americans in 1920s America. Among the more compelling scenes is one where Ma Rainey insists that her nephew, a stutterer, do the voice intro to the song. When he finally gets it right after many takes, the resulting elation, followed by utter disappointment, is deeply symbolic.
While two time Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe (Angels in America, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk) deftly captures the racial struggles and music of the era, the film itself still suffers from the all too familiar limitations of a movie adaptation stuck in its original stage format. As compelling as the performances are, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom still FEELS very much like a play, just a well repurposed one.
• Chadwick Boseman died on August 28, 2020, following a private, four year battle with colon cancer.
• This is Viola Davis’ second appearance in a film adaptation of an August Wilson play. She won her first Oscar for her performance in 2016’s Fences.
• Denzel Washington, who also appeared in Fences and was a mentor to Boseman, plans to adapt all ten of Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle stage plays, which describe the experiences of Black Americans in the early 20th century.