Occasionally a movie comes along that cuts you to the core. In the case of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom I'm not sure if it's because the script was so profound in parts, or the fact that it was sadly the last film the great Chadwick Boseman ever made. Either way, I'm not ashamed to admit that there were a few tears as the credits rolled. So what was it that had me reaching for the tissues?
Firstly a little background. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is based on a play by August Wilson. It focuses on Ma Rainey, an influential blues singer in the 1920s. While she was a real-life performer, the play is fiction. For the purposes of filming, it was adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Scott. Both are well known for their theater work so it's unsurprising that they chose this style for the movie. So from the get-go, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom feels like it's filmed as a play.
Personally, this worked for me. It felt more intimate and placed greater emphasis on the characters and the script. So what is it all about? Basically, Ma Rainey is a superstar blues singer. One of the few prominent Black women in music, on this particular day she is in the recording studio. Her band is rehearsing in the basement and so what we get is the interaction between them all.
Levee (Chadwick Boseman from 21 Bridges) is her trumpeter. But not content to just sit back and take orders, he is constantly pushing for more recognition as a talented musician and songwriter. The biggest obstacle, because it was the 1920s, is that he is Black. His fellow bandmates have a few laughs at his expense but this only riles him up even more. With the stifling heat, the arguments between the band, the delays in the recording and the antics of Ma Rainey, Levee is at breaking point. But how will this affect the session? Will he be able to contain himself or will he snap?
What makes Ma Rainey's Black Bottom so good is the standout cast. Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman will undoubtedly get Oscar-nominated and they deserve it. Theirs are epic performances that light up and pop from the screen but only because they are surrounded by such a talented group of actors. Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts more than hold their own during the tumultuous band scenes.
Overall, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a movie devoid of the usual bells and whistles. Because it doesn't need them. It is a character film and with all of its A star performances, it gets a huge thumbs up.