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‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Bolstered By Brilliant Performances From Viola Davis And Chadwick Boseman – Review

The transformation seen from Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and the late Chadwick Boseman in his final film performance as ambitious trumpeter, Levee, makes for something special in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - Still
(Courtesy of Netflix)

In 1920s Chicago a recording session is about to be underway. Fairly straightforward, yes? However, the session is anything but smooth sailing. A trailblazing band of musicians awaits the “Mother of Blues” herself, Ma Rainey (Davis). With Ma running late, the band, including talented trumpeter, Levee (Boseman), bandleader, Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) grow both anxious and annoyed with waiting. Ma’s manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) promises that it won’t be much longer, however, he seems more like a chicken with his head cut off as he runs about trying to make sure that everyone is kept happy, especially Ma.

When Ma finally graces everyone with her presence, the feeling of relief is palpable. However, when the recording session finally begins, almost everything doesn’t go to plan. As the band is sent back to their dungeon-like waiting room, it is here that Levee describes his ambitions to the band and just how he wants to make his own name for himself in the music industry. This spills into all of the band members sharing their stories and truths about their lives, forcing Levee to confront and relive past traumas. All the while, Ma is in a battle of wits and wills with her manager and record producer to see who will leave the session as the true winner of this day.

(Courtesy of Netflix)

Directed by George C. Wolfe and based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a film that is sure to have many talking. Of course, there is already talk of the film in the awards circuit, including potential nominations for Davis and Boseman for their outstanding work. While the entire cast of the film shines bright, Davis and Boseman are exceptionally compelling. Each and every time they are on-screen, they command the audience’s attention and it’s impossible to look away. Whether they’re battling their own demons or one another, Davis and Boseman clearly put their everything into their portrayals of Ma and Levee, respectively.

Both Davis and Boseman expertly weave through their characters’ ups and downs to create a fully-rounded persona in a short amount of time. I’ve never seen either in roles such as these and quite frankly, they ate every moment up. It was very easy as a viewer to fall in love with these performances which are a tour de force. Davis and Boseman are deserving of each and every nomination (and hopefully wins) they may be up for this awards season.

(Courtesy of Netflix)

In addition to stellar performances, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a beautiful film to look at. Sometimes when a play is adapted into a film, you can feel stagnant due to a lack of various locations. However, this is never the case with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Not only do we see some of the city, but we see what Ma’s performances are like, we see the difference between the dimly-lit waiting room the band is held in versus the harsh lights of the live recording area. Kudos to those in charge of the set/production design.

Another glowing element of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are the costumes. Whether is the subtlety of a well-tailored suit or a bodacious beaded dress Ma wears for a performance, every aspect of the wardrobe hits. While it’s very clearly 1920s attire, I wouldn’t doubt that the clothing in this film influences a piece or two in someone’s closet after watching.

All of these components make for a daring film. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom succeeds in bringing Wilson’s work to life from stage to screen and it is most certainly a must-see if you’re a fan of Davis and Boseman.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres on Netflix December 18th.

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