- “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a powerful movie that’s fuelled by its leads Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman.
- It marks Boseman’s last movie as he died earlier this year due to colon cancer. He was 43.
- Boseman, who plays a trumpeteer with ambitions bigger than playing behind Ma Rainey, delivers the best performance of his career.
- “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will be in theatres beginning November 25. It hits Netflix on December 18.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
As “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” opens, two Black boys run through the dark woods. A barking dog is heard in the background. You are to believe director George C. Wolfe is giving us another harsh look at racism in America in the 1920s.
But out of nowhere, a few torches light up around the boys, revealing the smiles on their faces. As the camera turns and the kids run off, you see a line of people waiting to go into a tent to see blues legend Ma Rainey perform.
It’s one of the best starts to a movie I’ve seen in a long while.
From there, Wolfe gets out of the way and lets his actors tell the story. And you would too if you were adapting the work of esteemed playwright August Wilson.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an adaption of Wilson’s powerful stage play that focuses on Rainey (played ferociously by Viola Davis), the “Mother of the Blues,” and her band as they record her gritty music in a hot and steamy Chicago studio.
Much of the focus is on the band â€” made up of trombone player and bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo), piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) â€” as they discuss the ins and outs of their lives in a very run down and claustrophobic rehearsal room.
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a harrowing look at racism that’s sadly still relevant today
So if you thought the movie’s sleight opening meant the story would not delve into issues like racism, oppression, and class you would be wrong. But what the opening slowly reveals is that the characters we are about to meet are Black people who believe they deserve to buy into the American dream. However, even with their ambition and savviness, the truth is they are still subjugated to the whims of white men.
The perfect example of this is Levee. The youngest member of the band, he’s also the most confident and confrontational, outside of Ma. When we first meet him, he’s soaking in the morning sun of a beautiful Chicago day and has his eye on a new pair of shoes.
He enters the rehearsal room gloating about his new purchase to his bandmates, a not-so-hidden jab to them that he believes he’s above them or at least is destined to be. The guys can’t help but laugh at Levee when he informs them that the white owner of the recording studio, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), wants him to write music for him. (But his band members are sceptical and for good reason. By the end of the film, we see what happens to Levee’s music. It’s whitewashed and given to a white singer and band; an example of Black culture stripped and rebranded for a mainstream audience).
Back inside the rehearsal studio, Ma’s white agent Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) is patently waiting for her to appear. When she finally does arrive in her automobile, a contrast to her band members who are seen walking up to the studio doors, she makes quite an entrance: Ma gets into a car accident outside of the studio, complains about how hot it is in the studio, and demands a coke before she sings any songs. Irvin scrambles to make Ma happy, but like Levee, Ma has false bravado. The reality is this white man is tending to her because she makes him money. The difference between Ma and Levee is she knows this.
The rehearsal room and the recording studio are the main locations of the movie. In both we learn about these characters wants, needs, hopes, dreams, and many times the horrific memories of their past.
Why you should watch: The performance by Chadwick Boseman is his greatest one
Boseman as Levee is a career-defining performance. I’ll be very honest, as great as “Black Panther” is as a film, I was never taken by his performance as T’Challa, the king of a fictional African country Wakanda, as others were. Most will remember Boseman for that role, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I will remember him most for Levee.
The raw emotion â€” mixture of joy, fear, and hate throughout â€” is a tour-de-force that shows he was just getting started in revealing his range to the world before his sudden death. The emotion he gives Levee when telling a story from his past is an acting level I had never seen from Boseman before. Did he know this would be his final movie when he did it? Impossible to know. But what he leaves onscreen here will be celebrated for a long time.
Most standout performance in the movie: Colman Domingo is the movie’s glue
Domingo as Cutler is the closest to Ma in the band and the one who keeps everyone in line when it comes to the style of music she likes to play. Domingo gives the character a quiet authority that is essential to the band dynamic and elevates not just Boseman but Davis’ performance as well.
Domingo has key scenes with both artists and proves that even for stars such as Davis and Boseman to deliver heartfelt performances they have to work across from an amazing character actor, who can push them to that level. This is something Domingo has been able to do throughout his career, while also shining on his own.
The bottom line: Netflix has a major Oscar contender with this one
Along with movies such as “Da 5 Bloods,” “Mank,” and “Hillbilly Elegy,” this movie proves that more Oscar bait is coming from Netflix. Especially for the acting categories. Davis and Boseman are shoe-ins for nominations.
Netflix will release the movie theatrically on November 25 and on the streaming service on December 18.
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