I knew nothing about the blues singer Ma Rainey before I saw Netflix’s latest. After the unfortunate passing of star Chadwick Boseman, I knew this was something I needed to see. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” follows a recording session for one of her albums and the numerous conflicts between her band (including Boseman and Colman Domingo) and her white producers. Adapted from work from playwright August Wilson, there’s a lot of detail in the subtextual conversations these characters have. More than just being about music, it’s about what it means to have a passion which is explained in conversations backstage and in recording booths for 93 minutes. That may not be your cup of tea, but there’s a lot here that you can really admire.
If you ever saw 2016’s film “Fences," starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington this is adapted from another of Wilson’s works. In both films, there’s a heavy reliance on dialogue being what really drives the tension. While “Fences” is focused on a struggling marriage, “Ma Rainey” tackles an array of other culturally relevant themes. Director George C. Wolfe turns this play into a true acting showcase for his performers. Particularly in our lead performances from Davis and Boseman you really get two top-notch performances. They’re the kind of roles that definitely deserve academy consideration when the awards roll around. Especially for the likes of Boseman’s member of the band, Levee.
In his career trajectory, Boseman has delivered an assortment of fascinating performances. From Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, James Brown, and even Black Panther, he has had an impeccable range as a performer. There’s no denying they’re good performances, but he always played them quite straight and serious. Here as Levee, Boseman gets to play between serious and incredibly funny. It’s such a great showcase as to what he could do as a performer and it’s the type of role that deserves any accolades it can get. Put him next to Viola Davis as larger than life, the tough as nails personality of Ma Rainey and it’s pure electricity.
Davis is someone who is always able to become the character that she’s supposedly “playing.” It’s definitely a showier performance than of Boseman, but one that commands the audience’s attention. Certainly, it is the type of performance that will earn her a nomination and it will be well deserved. Especially her interactions with supporting actors like Glynn Turman and Colman Domingo (members of the band) make the dialogue snappy. The disclaimer of this Wilson adaption is that it is dialogue reliant in every aspect of the word. A film like this moves the plot forward via what is being said. If that dialogue doesn’t instantly grab your attention then you will be incredibly bored. Whereas I was riveted every time these actors opened their mouths.
The only thing about “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was the film’s literal ending. Being based on a stage play, I will say without any spoilers, there’s a tragedy. This tragedy morphs into a metaphor about the cynicism and cruelty of race in the entertainment industry and the world. It’s got such a painfully honest “bite” that I still haven’t quite formulated an opinion as to how I feel about it. What I won’t deny is that I haven’t stopped thinking about it, which I’m starting to believe was the point. It’s the type of film that has a powerful message that will resonate with audiences, no matter the age.
Once it opens on Netflix later this month, I do recommend you check this one out. Not only is it a great sendoff to the talent of Chadwick Boseman, but a brilliant criticism of the entertainment industry and race relations. Clocking in at only 93 minutes long there’s a fast-paced excitement watching in the conversations. If dialogue-driven films aren’t a draw to you, there’s nothing I can say to change your mind. There’s so much raw acting talent on display that you just have to see it to believe it.