in the Ma Rainey’s black bottomThe late Chadwick Boseman, a wild, energetic, and compassionate short adaptation of George C. Wolfe, plays his ass off and Viola Davis chews the set for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While the dialogue-heavy, 90-minute immersion feels like too much Like a piece at times, it still has enough flavor and strength to attract attention.
During a recording session in Chicago in the 1920s, several black band members await the arrival of famous singer Ma Rainey (Davis) to joke, share stories and reflect on past traumas. One young musician, Levee (Boseman) is not satisfied with watching the afternoon go by. Driven by optimism and cynicism, he is looking for something bigger, regardless of the cost.
At a time when every film seems to be getting longer and longer, a story that knows exactly how long it has to be is immensely refreshing. Ma Rainey’s black bottom is a slender, mean machine that is bursting with radiant dialogue and pulsing to Ma’s soulful blues melodies.
What keeps Ma Rainey back, and I’m not sure if it could be avoided, is to keep it close to its stage roots. It’s confined to a few dingy rooms and completely reliant on the banter and arguments between a few people. It’s a spectacle in some ways and an experience that doesn’t quite feel like a movie in other ways. As great as the acting is, nothing in the movie feels like real life. everything is exaggerated, exalted, accelerated. Sometimes disgusting.
And yet the acting is great. Boseman (Black Panther), who died earlier this year after battling cancer, is in a league of its own. His performance is as magnetic, emotional and gripping as any other this year, even if you sometimes want to slap the character in the face. As for the venerable Davis, her portrayal of Ma Rainey (a real person if you didn’t know) is eye-catching, although I’d argue that she’s more than a unit here, a force to be reckoned with. as a fully realized character.
The supporting cast is largely overlooked due to the persistent headliners which is a shame. Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and Jeremy Shamos are particularly good at their respective roles.
Ma Rainey’s black bottom is hailed as a big contender for awards and you can see why. It is most notable for its accomplishments, the film is hindered by its source material, but it’s a fast-paced and often invigorating experience nonetheless.
Rating by Erik Samdahl, unless otherwise stated.