We’re almost at curtain call on this troubled year. A year I think we’re all ready to put in the past, and focus on our futures. However, we’ll always look back on this year for the losses we’ve all had in some form or another. And one loss that the world mourned, was that of the young, and very talented Chadwick Boseman. Whilst it’s a heartbreaking shame we won’t get to watch his career flourish, he’s left us in 2020, with two of his best performances. His appearance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, may just be the absolute best he’s ever given us.
Adapted from the play of the same name, by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the short story of Ma (Viola Davis) and her band who have travelled from the deep South, to a recording studio in Chicago. Ma demonstrates that she is her own boss. She performs and records her music her way, or not at all. That creates toxic tension within the studio. Not only between Ma and the studio manager and band manager, but also the band itself. Especially young and ambitious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Rough around the edges, but full of spark, Levee is looking to earn his own spotlight, and doesn’t like being in the background.
Whilst this story takes place during the prohibiton era of a late 1920’s Chicago, we’re only really invited into the claustrophobic confines of the recording studio. A setting that you can’t help but feel would work better in a close quartered theatre. This really doesn’t bring a wide scope to the screen. If blues music or a heavily propelled script do nothing for you, then perhaps this movie isn’t for you.
Whilst the performances are great, there’s not an awful lot of worth to its story. There’s no real breakdown of acts as such, and there’s very few moments in between that stand out from the rest of the show. That’s not to say however, that this film is a failure, as it’s not.
When I say that the performances are great, I do not mean that lightly. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has not one, but two central performances, that are surely deserved their spot on the nominations list come awards season. Viola Davis’ performance as Ma, the ‘Mother of Blues’, is ferocious and formidable. Whenever she is on screen, you can feel the power that her character possesses, and much like the woman she’s portraying, commands to be centre stage.
Not allowing her to grasp all of the glory though, is Chadwick’s Levee. Receiving the most in regards to backstory, Levee is a character that becomes increasingly unpredictable as the story unfolds. We start to sympathise for his outlook on life, and as he continues to struggle through the work rate of his demanding boss, we become as disillusioned by the process as he does.
When we hear the band finally getting into the swing of things, you can’t help but tap your feet and jive to the sweet music that erupts from the enthused musicians on screen. Ma’s voice vibrates your soul and when the band kicks in, this is when the film is at its entertaining highest. These moments though, are sadly too few, as it favours a strictly script driven piece, that fully allows its actors to best express themselves with Wilson’s writing.
Whilst I’m unfamiliar with August Wilson’s original work, it seems director George C. Wolfe has got the tone and feel of the play spot on. I only wish I loved the story and execution as much as I did the performances. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom looks to earn some gold at the award season, if not best picture, then two acting nominations and an adapted screenplay nomination at least. I didn’t love Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but there’s plenty for others to get behind.