Thursday, December 17, 2020

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - Review


When adapting a stage play to the screen, the trap often becomes that of stagnation, an un-dynamic presentation that feels trapped within the confines of a room or two. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is no stranger to this, the bulk of the story is set in just two rooms, however, it knows it has two performances at the forefront that will more than makeup for any minor shortcomings. One of which, might just be a career best and a final performance all in one go.

Set in Chicago, in the year 1927, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the tumultuous recording of a new record by the titular Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis. Along the way, through various roadblocks and rising tensions, the band mates share stories, philosophize, laugh and argue. 

Somehow Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom avoids feeling like just about any other stage-to-screen adaptation in recent memory. Director George C. Wolfe doesn’t strive to change the play’s setting too much from its original writing by the famed August Wilson, but he imbues it with a larger than life quality that expands the tiny recording studio beyond its four walls. The personalities at play here all pop, they bounce off of each other with seemingly unending energy, whether its in the creation of the all important music in the studio or in another argument in the dank, hot basement.

Of course, while Wolfe’s work here is commendable, the film lives and dies on its performances. And when that’s the case, why not get Viola Davis to portray the “Mother of Blues”. Davis is exceptional, we all knew that going in, but she undergoes a transformation here, packing on the padding, layering on the makeup and even sporting some gold teeth for good measure. Yet, even still her performance shines through all the additives to prove she is one of the best Hollywood has to offer. It’s her fourth time in a role originally written by August Wilson, and hopefully not her last. 

And then there’s Chadwick Boseman. An actor everyone knew to be tremendously talented delivers what is easily his best performance ever in his last performance ever. As Levee, the silver-tongued, ambitious horn player, Boseman commands attention in every scene, every line, every word he offers. There are two absolutely gut wrenching monologues Boseman delivers, one of which feels all the more painful knowing the reality of his life at the time. It’s a beautiful and bittersweet performance to witness.

Whenever a new film springs up, especially around this time of year, there is bound to be hyperbole. However, with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom it seems the hype is warranted. Wolfe handles the adaptation with care, never getting too flashy but bringing enough of a cinematic quality to justify the jump. Viola Davis will certainly be a contender for every award she is eligible for. And Chadwick Boseman truly does deliver an all time performance, one that will surely win him a posthumous Oscar come April, and cement his legacy as a talent gone way too soon.

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