Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Based on a Tony Award winning play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the final performance of actor Chadwick Boseman, and what a performance it was.

Boseman passed away in August from a years-long battle with cancer. Best known as King T’Challa from Marvel’s Black Panther, Boseman has been impressive in his film roles, but there may not be anything more impressive than his turn as Levee, a temperamental trumpeter with plans of musical success.

As Chadwick Boseman’s performance was not enough, Viola Davis absolutely slays it as Ma Rainey, the real life black singer called the “Mother of the Blues,” a demanding singer unwilling to budge from what she wanted.

Viola Davis recently won an Oscar for her role in Fences, another movie based on a play, alongside Denzel Washington, who produced this film. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels much like a play on film, just like fences did. The sharp dialogue, the powerhouse monologues, and the claustrophobic sets give this film its tone. Davis and Boseman bring the fire.

The film told the story of a recording session in 1927 on a hot Chicago afternoon. Ma Rainey, late arriving, tried completing a recording session with her white manager and producer. Her backing band had their own troubles, led by the emotionally unstable Levee.

The dialogue of the film was equally parts brilliant and uncomfortable. The constant use of the n-word was difficult to hear even though I know that is the verbiage of the culture. However, the monologues, in particular those delivered by Boseman, were utterly spellbinding and revealed the deep seeded pain of the character and made us understand the choices that he made.

Viola Davis is practically unrecognizable as the Mother of the Blues. The costume design and the manner in which the film was shot were beautiful and transcendent. The music was alive and electric. The film was a look at race, prejudice and the power of music to overcome the boundaries placed upon some.

This is another amazing film from Netflix this year. You cannot help but feel the loss of Chadwick Boseman, the unanswerable question of just how high he could have taken his career. You need to make sure you see this raw and stirring performance.

5 stars

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