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Film Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020): Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. Cr. David Lee / Netflix
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020): Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. Cr. David Lee / Netflix

IMDb Link: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Director: George C. Wolfe
Writer: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo
Based on: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson

Synopsis: Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues”.

Many people, including the casual audience who may not be aware of the source material, will be turning on their Netflix accounts over the next few days to watch this film. With the final on-screen performance by leading actor Chadwick Boseman before his unfortunate passing earlier on in the year, there is a desire to see his final performance and get one last look at him. It can be easy just to say that he may win an Oscar this year because of his passing, but it is also very easy to say that he deserves it based on his performance alone.

Chadwick Boseman was always going to be in the conversation when it came to the Oscars this year, particularly for this film. His performance as Levee, a rebellious horn player who fights for the music that he believes in, is fiery and filled with passion. Even though the focus of the play is on the icon of Ma Rainey, Levee is the leading character in this story. Boseman is given the hardest material to work with, from the shifts in tone that he has to balance to the large number of monologues that he is giving here. I will be saying this many times throughout awards season, but Boseman is undeniable this year and any awards that he wins for this performance is completely worthy.

This is not just Chadwick Boseman’s film though. This is called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Viola Davis gives an incredible performance in the role. Even though she has less screen-time than expected, she owns every minute that she is on the screen. Her performance is also loud, but it is even the facial expressions that she makes and the confidence that comes out of her that sells her performance as much as the dialogue. As much as Chadwick Boseman is in the discussion for the Oscars, so too is Viola and it is very much deserved.

It feels very strange to have an awards contender that is this short of a film, clocking in at 93 minutes. Yet, that is the exact amount of time that is needed to tell a story like this. The editing is sharp, never making the audience bored or lose focus of the main story, and yet giving the story enough time and breathing room to build up the conflict naturally. The pacing is so well handled, especially for a story that is told within a few locations and heavy on the dialogue.

This film takes us back to Chicago in the 1920s as the art direction is so well put together. Even though we barely get to leave the recording studio that the song is being recorded at, the extra details such as the furniture help transport us back in time. The costume design is tight on every outfit, and the make-up should be winning every award there is this year. The make-up work on Viola Davis alone is some of the best work that I have seen in years.

I did find myself running into a few small issues with the film, however. For a film that is about the recording of a song, I am surprised that the music design lacked any impact. The song itself is nice, but it feels polished and it is clear that the song was lip-synced for the final product. For a song like ‘Black Bottom’ to sound as clean as it did in the recording studio for this film, it is hard to buy and takes you out of the film.

This film runs into the same issues that I had with another film I watched earlier this year, One Night in Miami…, in which both screenplays were taken from stage productions and were turned into screen productions. The issue with that is the large number of monologues and heavy dialogue, as well as the long sequences that take place in one location, starts to make the film feel flat and become apparent that it was originally written for the stage. It does take away from the quality of the filmmaking when the film becomes apparent that the material works better on the stage.

Aside from that though, this is another strong film from Netflix this year and another contender that they have on their hands. If there was a film that Boseman had to leave as his final performance, he certainly saved his best to last. This is a quick film to get through, but one that is important and showcases some of the best talent working in Hollywood to this day, from the art design to the talent on screen. This is an easy recommendation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available to watch on Netflix now.

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