Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a film akin to a spiritual experience. A transfixing blast of soul and emotion. Oscar-winner Viola Davis is radiant as Ma Rainey. Her performance is off the charts. Chadwick Boseman’s performance is one for ages. His performance and this film are both blessings. Watching him on screen, brought back memories of seeing Heath Ledger portray the Joker for the first time. Just like Ledger’s performance, Boseman’s work in the film is pure magic. Perhaps their individual pains allowed these actors to tap into something that’s beyond our comprehension. This fantastic adaptation of August Wilson’s play, which was brought to the screen with the help of executive producer Denzel Washington, is the second piece of his work that’s been translated for the screen.
The film takes place over one day in Chicago at a recording studio in Chicago, where Ma Rainey is lying down some of her tracks. Ma clearly runs things, but Leeve (Boseman), the trumpet player, has other plans. The main conflict in the film centers around Ma and Leeve. It comes down to a battle between tradition and innovation. When Ma’s manager Irvin demands they sing Leeve’s arrangements, it sends her over the edge. Being in control has always been how Ma Rainey stayed sane. She knows white folks only value her because of the money she brings in, and she’s willing to sacrifice her sense of worth to do that.
Levee and the Ma’s band members, Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), attempt to practice before recording. Still, it unravels into more of a needling session, which ends when Leeve begins asking deep questions about faith and race. The power of this piece comes from the interactions occurring within this ensemble. Those moments are what ignites this piece into a roaring fire of chemistry. Each member of the band does appear to be questioning their own self-worth. The only thing keeping them going is their love of music.
Director George C. Wolfe deftly stages this adaptation while still challenging his very talented cast. The cinematography and costume design are exquisite. Domingo and Davis are fantastic and will likely be very busy this award season. The biggest takeaway from the film is Boseman. His portrayal of Leeve is easily the best performance of his career and will result in an Oscar Nomination for the late actor in 2021. The only question left to answer is whether he will receive two nominations, one for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the other for Da 5 Bloods. Boseman scoring nominations following his death would be historic given the quality of each of those films.