Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians await trailblazing performer, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Academy Award® winner Viola Davis). Late to the session, the fearless, fiery Ma engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music. As the band waits in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) – who has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend and is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry – spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives. Adapted from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM celebrates the transformative power of the blues and the artists who refuse to let society’s prejudices dictate their worth.Written by Netflix
To say this latest adaptation of the late August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is frustrating is an understatement. You’d be hard pressed trying to decide which aspect of the film deserves the most praise. It’s a daunting task to say the least, with there being so much to love, appreciate, and adore. The wardrobe speaks volumes, the dialogue is pure, and the performances are outstanding! It’s easily some of the best acting not only of the year, but the decade!
The way director George C. Wolfe captures 1927 Chicago racism is the perfect reflection of how Black Americans have evolved in the country while simultaneously being stagnated in attempts to rise up the social and economic ladder. It’s also a realistic account without being thrown in your face for pretentious shock value. Racism comes in many forms going back and forth between subtle and overt, and this film captures it all effortlessly. What’s most impressive is the dialogue between the cast on how to deal with such atrocities. Older and younger generations have always been at odds on how to proceed in life while experiencing it, and the reality is that neither parties are wrong. This is very apparent throughout all the characters that are on screen. The script even provided solutions to overcome this quagmire organically which makes this experience that much more enjoyable. Blacks have never had anything to hold onto in this country yet live their lives as if they’ve had it all. The way that’s represented in this film is relatable and is also a teaching moment without being too preachy.
However, this piece of art of course may not be palatable for all audiences. Since this is adapted from a play that’s exactly how it presents itself in the dialogue from the majority of the characters. The set design was superb yet feels like it was performed on stage for a live audience. Though the director is able to craft an environment where you’re so engulfed in the expression of some of the main leads’ performances, that the scenes transform midway from live action onstage performances to real life accounts as if you are actually there.
The Blues music genre has been around for over a century, and now it’s receiving more shine by highlighting the days of Ma Rainey aka “The Mother of Blues” played by Oscar award winner Viola Davis. If you think you’ve seen her best performance you haven’t seen anything yet. Be prepared to pick your jaw up off the floor, because her role was nothing short of captivating as she erupted with such grace and dominance in this role. It may take your breath away, and that’s said with no exaggeration. She was so unapologetic in this role. The makeup design with the colors, sweat, and gold teeth brought so much life to her character as if Davis was playing herself. If she’s not recognized for this it will be the crime of the century. This is the platinum standard of how acting should be done and will be remembered in time forever and ever.
What’s unbelievable is our late brother Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Levee was just as good or even better. Tensions are rising during this recording session as he plays the talented trumpeter, and he’s not bowing down to anyone either. The way his character Levee and Ma Rainey bounce off of each other is a dream come true in cinema. All you can do is sit in awe as he transforms himself into the role. There was so much passion within his voice, his mannerisms, his everything. The way he delivered his lines was as if he was on a mission to let the world know what he was capable of if not already. It’s sad to say that it also came across like a cry for help as if he knew this would be his last role, and he wanted to leave his mark on the world. There was pain in his performance, as if he had a dark secret he wanted to reveal but couldn’t, that will leave you in tears when it’s all over.
There’s so much that can be taken away from this film. In a time that was nearly one hundred years ago, I can appreciate the confidence level Black Americans had when trying to make a living for themselves during such harsh times. It’s a shame that Chadwick Boseman passed away at such a young age with such talent. I can only imagine what this man could’ve done in his acting career if he was still here today. If he were, the whirlwind of skill that he possessed would go down in history, and definitely will now as he will be remembered as one of the greats.