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Review: 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) is the second film adaptation of an August Wilson play produced by Denzel Washington.

The first was Fences (2016), which Denzel produced and directed and was also the star. Both movies were shot on location here in Pittsburgh.

Tragically, the film may ultimately be remembered as the last film starring Chadwick Boseman, who died shortly after filming was completed following a 4-year battle with colon cancer.

The movie is dedicated to his artistry and heart.

There is a lot of Boseman’s artistry and heart in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Though he appears noticeably thinner than he was when played his superhero character Black Panther (2018), nothing else would indicate that he was in the final months of his life.

He brings energy and fire to the role Levee, a young, trumpet player brimming with talent, ambition and pent-up anger. His enormous ego and youthful naivete are the stumbling blocks to his dreams of success.

That, and his larger-than-life boss, Ma Rainey, a blues singing sensation with powerful pipes and burning passion that had already brought her to stardom.

The year is 1927. The location is Chicago where Ma and her band are booked to record a few songs.

The temperature is hot and so are the tempers that flare up when Levee and Ma’s inflated egos collide head-on.

Ma is a force of nature—fearless and formidable—a jaded woman who is street-smart and street-wise.

She knows she’s being exploited by the pioneering recording industry eager to cash in on her unique voice and her ability to sell records. But that self-knowledge gives Ma some degree of power and control in a world of white people.

August Wilson’s work shines a light on racism in America. Here, it focuses on the ongoing struggle of black people to survive in an unsympathetic world.

The emotional outbursts that explode in the rehearsal room and recording studio illuminate the underlying, searing anger and pain that Ma and the members of her band all share.

The rage escalates in the most powerful scene in the movie when Levee raises his eyes to the heavens and launches into a blasphemous tirade directed at God Himself, for dispassionately allowing so much suffering and pain to happen to him.

It’s a career topping-performance for Boseman, an exclamation point at the end of a skyrocketing acting career.

While he may be most be remembered for his iconic Black Panther movie character, an inspiration to so many, young and old, his portrayal of Levee is an even greater showcase of his remarkable talent, demonstrating what he could do in a more serious, more challenging role.

He shares the screen with Viola Davis who adds yet another stellar performance to her resume. Her Ma Rainey (based on the real-life, legendary blues singer) is arresting from her first moment in the film, belting out the blues in a tent at night to a crowd of fans transfixed by her magic.

Her makeup is gaudy and overdone, her clothes are flashy and her stage presence is soulful and electrifying. She knows that she is a rare and unstoppable force, somehow destined for success despite a mountain of oppression and obstacles.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a film of real substance, beautifully shot and edited. It’s filled with rich color and texture and atmosphere.

There are sparkly, energized sequences reminiscent of Rob Marshall’s Broadway musical masterpiece Chicago (2002) and that’s a high compliment.

Tony Award winning director George C. Wolfe deserves much credit for orchestrating the performances and overseeing the vibrant look of the film. He guides with a steady hand.

Bradford Marsalis’s music perfectly energizes the film with an evocative score.

The technical aspects of the film and the performances are Oscar-worthy all around.

At the top of the list are the contributions of Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.

Boseman should be added to that short list of actors who received well-deserved posthumous Academy Awards, including Peter Finch for Network (1977) and Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (2009).

It all adds up to a dazzling movie, with a lot to say about music and exploitation as well as racism and repression in the 1920s and today.

Its only shortcoming might be the restrictive locations. Most of the story takes place in the basement rehearsal room and the small recording studio room.

It’s a reminder that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom began as a play. Consequently, it retains a bit of a theatrical feel, at times it looks like we’re watching a stage performance.

But that focuses our attention on the characters and dialog, which are at the heart of this story. It’s a cinematic telling of the stage performance in terms of the blocking, shooting and editing, but it is a movie adaptation that trusts brilliant source material from an acclaimed playwright.

We will all miss Chadwick Boseman.

He was a beloved actor and human being and his untimely passing was a shock. He was young and talented and we can only wonder what he might have gone on to do.

But we are really blessed to have this one, last, final performance. He leaves his indelible stamp.

Not many of us knew what a painful struggle it must have been for him to complete this project while battling cancer.

What he left us is a parting a gift. To all of us. From a truly remarkable man who displayed courage, determination and strength to the very end.


'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' is in theaters now and on Netflix, starting December 18.

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