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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom


‘…while George C Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play is a respectful, vibrant work, it also feels like filmed theatre rather than cinema…’

Today’s mystery; how can Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom have not one but two of the year’s best leading performances, but NOT be one of the best pictures? Those who study the Kremlinology of the Oscars voting system may well want to ponder this question; Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis have been acclaimed by awards bodies, but somehow there’s a lack of love for the final product. The punch-line is that while George C Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play is a respectful, vibrant work, it also feels like filmed theatre rather than cinema, and there is a difference.

Like producer Denzel Washington’s previous entry, Fences, there’s a history lesson involved; this time, we’re headed back to 1920’s Chicago where Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is heading into the recording studio. In theatrical style, there’s quite a wait until we see Ma giving it both barrels on the mic; first of all we have to see her band assemble, with trumpeter Levee Green (Boseman) more than willing to shake up the dynamic. Ma needs an ice-cold coke to sing, and when her soft drink of choice isn’t ready, she refuses to perform. A number of other obstacles appear, from Ma’s stuttering nephew to manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) who struggles to give the whole venture momentum. A pressure-cooker environment results, and Levee’s hopes and dreams make him an incendiary force in the tight, tense studio environment.

While deliberately slow to start, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom overcomes theatrical originals and eventually transcends them, largely due to two powerhouse leads, but also due to a uniformly strong support; the dialogue sings, and the characters are consistently entertaining to watch. But like Fences, this feels like a play put under glass for future generations to study; despite well-mounted bursts of activity outside the studio, Wolfe’s film still feels like being trapped in one over-crowded basement as tensions build, a dynamic that works both for and against the film. Levee’s ambition, mixed with rage against the same world he hopes will feed his desires, suggests in-built contradictions, but when they finally explode, the narrative is all but done bar a caustic coda.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom manages the difficult trick of making theatre watchable as a film; many have tried and failed, so Netflix deserve credit here. As cinema, it comes up slightly short; Boseman and Davis both fire up the energy levels with their solo turns, but the last few narrative notes are decidedly predictable, and lack the surprise that great cinema can create. Washington’s desire to elevate great theatre through film is laudable and worthwhile, but a slightly more radical take on this material might have brought more universal acclaim. Like Fences, like One Night in Miami, audiences are getting a black history lesson via theatre plays filmed, but the worrying fissures opening up right now in today’s overtly racist society remain un-addressed.

Thanks to Netflix for blu-ray screener access to this film.


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  1. I personally loved the film. I’m a sucker for a story that can pull off a gripping tale in (roughly) a single location, like Rope or Clerks. It’s safe to say I’ll add this to that list. I agree to the predictability, but I was still captivated. The performances are a major part of that, so I’m happy with their nominations.

    • Good to hear! Don’t get me wrong, I think the play is great, and the treatment is great, but I do think they might have done a little more, not to open it out, but to make it more of a film. But I agree that the magic trick, of transcending the location, actually happens, and that’s a very tough thing to do…

    • And as part of a joined up strategy for getting cinemas open and keeping them that way.

  2. Thank you for reviewing a movie that should remind Americans about our real, vibrant, angst filled musical heritage. Many don’t see it that way–they’d be wrong. I 101% agree with your statement ‘as cinema, it comes up slightly short;’ absolutely true. I admire V. Davis films, acting chops, and TV performances in general, however, I sensed overacting here, even though Ma was larger than life. The Broadway play brought out a rural sort of nobility RE the lives of blues artists depicted I didn’t feel in the movie.
    Ma was born to mistral singers the same decade Jack the Ripper committed his crimes. She played the vaudeville circuit as a blues interpreter and worked for a time with the great Bessie Smith. I thought Q Latifah was better in HBO movie on Bessie Smith. Ma aced bawdy ballads with her deep, sensual voice and flashy attire. She continued performing thru most of the depression, dying of heart related illness in late 30s if memory serves. Davis’ depiction was somehow off to me. I think ‘black bottom’ refers to a dance Ma did on stage that enjoyed 15 minutes of fame??? I would have loved to have seen a few flashbacks or flash forwards to make it more movie’esque??? Also felt Davis was playing part with knowledge of totality of Ma’s life, not just the recording day on which play and movie based. Mas wasn’t so much a diva as a shrewd business woman–from what I’ve read. She influenced poet Langston Hughes and Alice Walker’s writing of The Color Purple. Excellent review!

    • I see you managed to shoe-horn Jack the Ripper in here! Didn’t know about teh connection to Color Purple, but can see the link; I’m a fan of Davis to be sure, but like you, felt that I could have used more info, in flashback of forward, to round these characters out. Would have been keen to see the play, but I’d imagine that it would work better than the film; I was reminded of the Mendes staging of Cabaret with the band on the stage. What is clear is that this is a classic play, and if nothing else, this film puts it, and the music it celebrates, firmly on the mainstream map, so I’m happy to put my carping aside…thanks as always for the informed comment!

  3. Yup, but that’s WP, it’s not in my entered text. What fraggle is calling errors are not errors, it’s a matter of style as to using a semi instead of a comma, you and fraggle wouldn’t understand….how about I send you a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses and a red pen and you can come back when you’re finished…

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