Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis shine in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Gabriella Geisinger
·4-min read

From Digital Spy

To say Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a talked-about movie is an understatement. The adaptation of August Wilson's play stars the late Chadwick Boseman in his final role, and both his and co-star Viola Davis' names are being tipped for Oscars consideration by critics.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a fictional account of a fateful recording session of the very real Ma Rainey herself. When Levee (Boseman), an ambitious and talented trumpeter, begins to talk about his grand plans, tensions rise and culminate in a life-shattering moment.

It's almost impossible to talk about Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, or indeed watch the film, without also thinking about Boseman's incredible work ethic and his death. And yet even if Boseman were alive — and we were to ignore of the layers of complexity that his illness lends to the character's railing monologues against God — his name would still certainly be on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

As Levee, Boseman is an undeniable talent. He moves through his monologues with unfathomable ease, even as he details horrific violence, lofty ambition and devilish cunning, there is an effortlessness in the way he inhabits the character.

Likewise, Davis as the titular Ma Rainey gives one of the performances of her career. Gertrude "Ma Rainey" Pridgett was the real-life Mother of the Blues, and Davis' performance shows just how intrinsically linked her music was to who she was as a person.

Ma is a woman who knows her worth and her value, and she won't listen to anyone when they tell her to do things differently. As a fictional character, Davis lends her an empathy too that belies her stubborn and unyielding nature.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

It is the acting that carries Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and which allows the themes to slowly unfurl for the audience. Race, power, control, ambition, evolution, sexuality – all of these things are either told to us through anecdotes or revealed as the characters bob and weave their way around each other.

As a movie, there's something about it that doesn't quite hold your attention — even as bubbling tension erupts into a rolling boil. The characters move through space as if they were blocked for the stage, and it's slightly distracting to watch.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

There is an often-repeated maxim in creative writing: show, don't tell. In the case of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, it's a story almost entirely 'told' as the characters exchange stories, lessons, anecdotes, and songs to movie the plot and their own development.

In a play, this can work. The audience is captive, and so they feel part of the storytelling, as if they're a fly on the wall, or sat around the campfire, too. But in a movie, there's already a distance that is exacerbated by this second-hand receiving of information.

No matter how expertly acted the monologue is, there are no soliloquies to bring the audience into the room. So we're relegated to the act of watching, which does take effort and as a result the film sometimes fails to keep your attention, to keep you engaged in the act of watching.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Setting that aside, which isn't an impossible task, there are few flaws in this film. It is a movie that rests almost entirely on the talent of its cast, which could be a disaster if there's one weak link.

But in the case of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, every performer is at their peak and create a flawless backdrop against which Boseman and Davis shine. It proves Boseman was an actor of deep and devastating talent, and that Davis' multifacetedness brings untold layers to every role she takes.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is available on Netflix from November 25

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