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”. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play.
We are introduced right off the back to the power struggle between Ma Rainey and Levee. He tries to force himself upon the stage to get a little bit of the limelight during their opening number, and Ma Rainey isn’t here for it.
Early on, we get Levee’s impact, and I had to pause for a minute to reflect on Chadwick and understand this is his final performance. It is sad, and watching him do his thing, breaks my heart.
Next, one of the things that stand out early is the costume design, the set design, and the sounds, just the combination of the three truly set the tone early for what is ahead.
Soon we see Ma Rainey and how she demands that everyone feels her presence. Ma had a powerful voice, and she knew what she was something special, and she wasn’t going to settle for anything less than what she deserved. It was powerful, especially in this era, and I loved how she stood her ground to the execs and didn’t care about the blowback. She is the show, she is the star, and she knows how on a flip of a dime, they would toss her aside like garbage.
Although the story is straight forward, Ma Rainey has an emotional depth about the power of loving something. These individuals have a love for blues. The blues are their lives and the thing that keeps them moving forward in a world that is so cruel towards people like them.
So then, the ensemble cast in this film is nothing short of a spectacle. Kicking it off with Chadwick Boseman, who gives an emotionally invigorating performance for the ages. It is the final chapter in what is a fantastic career, and the heart and soul he puts into Levee’s role is one we will never forget. There is a moment in the film where he talks to God and his doubts about his existence. That particular moment was not just an Oscar moment, but it was hard to watch him speak to a God and understand he is gone now.
More on the acting, Viola Davis demands to be seen and heard in this film, and I am mesmerized by the charisma she showcased within Ma Rainey. Ma Rainey was flashy, loud, smooth, and a star, and Davis encaptures every bit of that and makes you not take your eyes off the screen when she is on it. I personally feel like this is Viola’s best performance of her career. And the rest of the cast was strong as this might be the best-acted film of the year.
Finally, the shots were simplistic and nothing over the top, but the angles we are consuming are executed well. The tight 94-minute run-time makes the film come and go in a fast nature, which I loved as they never tried to overstay their welcome.
Overall, my issues with the film are somewhat small. I don’t believe we stayed in one area of the film to invest in the story emotionally. We got bits and pieces of what was transpiring, and they were enough to nibble on each of Ma and Levee’s past, but they weren’t fully developed enough to get you ultimately invested. It was an acting showcase as not one piece of dialogue was wasted, nor was one movement wasted. I enjoyed everyone in this film and believe this might be a front runner for ensemble nominee.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an acting showcase led by phenomenal performances from Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis.