Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Movie Review
In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a fierce, energetic and mercifully short play adaptation by George C. Wolfe, the late Chadwick Boseman acts his ass off and Viola Davis chomps scenery for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While the dialogue-heavy, 90-minute immersion feels too much like a play at times, it nonetheless has enough spice and vigor to command attention.
Set during a recording session in 1920s Chicago, several black band members await the arrival of illustrious singer Ma Rainey (Davis), giving them an opportunity to joke, share stories, and reflect on past traumas. One young musician, Levee (Boseman), isn’t content to just let the afternoon drift by; powered by both optimism and cynicism, he seeks something greater, no matter the cost.
In a time where every movie seems to be getting longer and longer, there is something immensely refreshing about a story that knows exactly how long it needs to be old. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a lean, mean machine, bursting with radiant dialogue and pulsing to Ma’s soulful blues tunes.
What holds Ma Rainey back, and I’m not sure if it could be avoided, is that it stays close to its stage roots. Confined to a few dingey rooms and fully reliant on the banter and arguments between a few individuals, it is in one way a spectacle and another an experience that doesn’t quite feel like a movie. As great as the acting is, nothing in the movie feels like real life; everything is exaggerated, heightened, accelerated. Arguably obnoxious at times.
And yet the acting is great. Boseman (Black Panther), who died earlier this year after a battle with cancer, is in a league of his own. His performance is as magnetic, emotional, and enthralling as any this year, even if you sometimes want to punch the character in the face. As for the venerable Davis, her portrayal of Ma Rainey (a real person, if you didn’t know) is a head-turner, though I’d argue she serves as more than an entity here, a force to be reckoned with, than a fully realized character.
The supporting cast will largely be overlooked due to the tenacious headliners, which is a shame. Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and Jeremy Shamos are especially excellent in their respective roles.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is being trumpeted as a major award contender, and one can see why. It stands out more for its performances than anything else, the movie hampered by its source material, but it’s a fast-paced and often invigorating experience nonetheless.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.