Review: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ brings us powerful performances by Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis

When Chadwick Boseman passed away this summer, it cast a new light on all of his recent work. Not only did he work nearly constantly while also suffering from stage four cancer, but he also took the time to inhabit meaningful African American characters and to bring African American stories to the screen. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has a hell of a lot of expectations, being both produced by Denzel Washington and adapted from the August Wilson play of the same name, and that’s before you consider that it is Boseman’s last film.

So it’s a good thing that its a good movie then.

The story takes place in a recording studio in the late 1920s. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), the mother of the blues, is to record there. As the film begins, her manager (Jeremy Shamos) is setting the place up, and her bandmates are beginning to arrive.

Cutler (Coleman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), Toldeo (Glynn Turner), and Levee (Boseman) are welcome to the studio by Ma’s manager Irvine and sent straight to the basement to wait for Ma to arrive. There they jam, they philosophize, and they tell stories.

If it weren’t based on a famous play, there’d be no way not to recognize that this film is based on a play. The single location and dialogue-heavy scenes make that more than apparent, but I am predisposed to like films based on plays and in a lot of respects I loved this one.

As each story gets told, and each character gets a nice long monologue on the state of their world, each actor gets a chance to shine brightly. Boseman and Davis both do excellent work with their roles as Levee and Ma, him the ambitious young player who wants to form his own band and command the same respect that he sees Ma getting, and her the world-weary singer who knows that what respect she gets is merely a facade used to exploit her for her talent.

Each of their performances is great, but it’s Boseman who really shines for me. He is also energetic and expressive. Whether he’s obsessing over a pair of shoes or realizing that the world doesn’t work how he thought it does; his performance is incredibly genuine and affecting. Davis is no slouch though, pouring her all into Ma and getting some of the films best lines.

Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Colman Domingo as Cutler, Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, and Glynn Turman as Toldeo / Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

The exploitation of black artists by white producers is the big prevalent theme of the play. Pay close attention to every interaction with Irvine, the manager, and the band, and you will see the casual racism of the day (and today) laid bare, and seeing how each of the characters recognize it and deal with it is illuminating.

I do have one small problem with the film and that is Viola Davis singing voice. From what I can gather she did indeed sing the songs, but she’s also clearly had another vocal performance either mixed in with hers or been dubbed over completely. I couldn’t tell you why this is, but I can tell you that whenever she sings it did kick me out of the movie just a little because it was so obviously not her.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a well-made film and just as timely today it was nearly 40 years ago when it was written. Chadwick Boseman’s final performance is electric and not to be missed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up nominated (or even winning) a few awards posthumously. It is effective, powerful, and features a few great tunes to boot. Definitely check it out.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will premiere on Netflix on Friday, December 18th, following a limited theatrical run in late November.