Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Written by Ruben-Santiago Hudson
The story of blues singer Ma Rainey and her accompanying band, director George C. Wolfe draws the audience into a dramatic and tension-filled portrayal of a recording session in 1927. Covering themes of racism, ambition and power almost exclusively under one roof for the entire runtime, Wolfe’s story may be simple in terms of locations, but it’s wider considerations are much greater.
The winner of a Tony Award for his achievements as a stage director in the 90’s, Wolfe clearly still utilises similar techniques when it comes to his film direction. In the basement of a recording studio, where the band prepares for Ma Rainey’s arrival, tensions rise between leading performers Levee (Boseman) and Cutler (Domingo). Fast-paced and brilliantly written dialogue explodes between the two as their conversation ebbs and flows, with the topic at hand ranging from the way they’ll be playing a certain song to the effects of childhood trauma in what feels like a single breath.This strength is maintained throughout almost the entire runtime, with some great moments of conflict generating primarily as a result of both the dialogue and the performances.
Speaking of performances, it’s no secret that Chadwick Boseman provides possibly the greatest acting of his career in this film. As soon as we set eyes on him within a scene, the whole film just feels more exciting and interesting. Extensive pieces of dialogue which he tackles with confidence and energy unlike any other performance I’ve seen recently create a clear sense of his character as a real person. Their fears, conflicts and loves all bring themselves to the surface just within his visual performance alone.
It’s a testament to Boseman’s acting abilities that he is seemingly getting a little more praise than his co-star Viola Davis, as her performance within this film is brilliant as well. The characteristics of her ‘Ma Rainey’ seem to directly oppose that of Boseman’s ‘Levee,’ with the former often appearing more in control of her emotions until moments of sudden energy which reinforce her status as a character who is trying their best to maintain control of their environment.
Despite the strength of the performances in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, as well as the oftentimes well-written dialogue, it doesn’t feel like a film which will go down as one of the greats. In particular, the editing can often feel quite jarring, with a style employed which frequently changes between shots in a way that can feel unnecessary, and only stunts the dialogue which is being delivered. As well as this, moments of the story can feel unnecessary or unmotivated by the scene which it finds itself in. Of course, in real life not everything has a clear explanation, but within ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, particular storylines are sometimes not entirely explored to their full potential, whilst others reach their conclusion without warning. However, this is not to say there aren’t some incredibly thought-provoking scenes, with the final conclusion of the film being simply heartbreaking.
All in all, I would definitely recommend giving ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ a watch. It has some phenomenal performances, the music is great, and sometimes it’s just nice to see a relatively new release and imagine yourself back in the cinema.