Movie Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

In limited release in theatres before December 18 debut on Netflix.

George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (B) takes viewers into the tinderbox of a fraught musical recording session in 1920’s Chicago in which a nearly all-Black cast showcases the drive for seizing power and making a mark when the odds aren’t stacked in one’s favor. It’s a largely talky film with a few brassy moments of blues music, but the main attraction here is a two-part powerhouse performance by Viola Davis as a demanding show woman and the late Chadwick Boseman as a cocksure trumpeter who clashes with most of the gathering band. In the film’s relatively brief running time, Wolfe chronicles some of the bandmates’ philosophies and back stories including some traumatic tales. The film comes alive gorgeously in its lead actors’ monologues. Davis fully inhabits her diva with fierce finesse; and although they don’t share as many scenes as expected, Boseman commands the screen like he never has before. The film is a riff on race in a minor key but fascinating and filled with majestic prose. Wolfe’s handsome and absorbing production is a solid glimpse into Wilson’s way of subverting expectations.

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