Taking a play and turning it into a film has inherent challenges. After all, if a filmmaker doesn’t open up the world sufficiently, there’s a sense that something is missing. On the flip-side, however, too much of that and the appeal of the source material can be lost. So, it’s a pleasure to report that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom navigates that challenge impeccably, presenting a movie that nods to its roots, but finds its own footing. Netflix should have no trouble making this flick appeal to both audiences and awards voters. Simply put, it has got the goods to go very far.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a lively and vibrant picture, full of an energy that’s almost always effectively channeled. While it’s clear that this is adapted from the stage, with soaring monologues and a confined space, it’s never hamstrung by that fact. In fact, the ability it shows to overcome that potential challenge makes it a superior work to the already well done Fences from a few years ago. From top to bottom, it’s an unbridled success, depicting the black experience, both in America and specifically in the music industry at the time, with passion, style, and wholehearted drama. A simple biopic, this is not.
The plays of August Wilson are passion projects for Denzel Washington. He directed and starred in Fences, and now produces here, helping to shepherd it to the screen. The care and love that Washington has for Wilson makes sure that these are productions that get to the core of the words. It’s an important distinction that not just makes them successful adaptations, but makes you eager to see more going forward.
Adapted from Wilson’s play, the film is set in 1920s Chicago, over the course of one day spent in a recording studio. A small group of musicians are waiting for “mother of the blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) to arrive, so they can get to work. However, she’s yet to make an appearance. Waiting in the rehearsal room, veterans like Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) take it in stride, though Levee (Chadwick Boseman) is getting worked up. Full of dreams for his own band and career, this is merely a jumping off point for him. In short order, they’re nearly at each others’ throats
As the afternoon progresses, tensions continue to rise. When Ma arrives, with her nephew and girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) in tow, a battle of wills between her and the white producers is just getting started. Levee has eyes for Dussie Mae, and the feeling might be mutual, only complicating matters more. As the band tells stories and gets into arguments, Levee’s anxiousness to blaze his own trail threatens to derail everything.
Everyone in this cast is terrific, but Chadwick Boseman is on a whole other level here. Even if he hadn’t passed untimely earlier this year, he’d be getting the exact same raves for this performance. Boseman is a force of nature, just taking already strong material and raising it up. Watching him in this film is an absolutely hypnotic experience. More than just the best performance of his career, it’s an unforgettable turn. Viola Davis is of course very good, as well, though her role is smaller than one might expect. She goes big and provides a ton of entertainment value, helping to separate this from her more subtle and intense turns. While Boseman and Davis are the stars, don’t sleep on Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman, who are excellent in their supporting parts.
Kudos to George C. Wolfe for finding a way to make a stage-y premise cinematic. Wolfe and his cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler make ample use of light and subtle visuals to call attention to the individuals we’re spending time with. Writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Wolfe keep Wilson’s spirit flowing throughout the picture, but they’re never slavish to the play. That’s a huge reason why this movie works so well, along with the captivating score from Branford Marsalis. Boseman is obviously another, but without Wolfe’s touch, it wouldn’t have been as impactful.
Awards wise, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is certainly another major Oscar player for Netflix. Chadwick Boseman in Best Actor is the safest bet (and an early frontrunner to win), but almost assuredly not the only nomination they’ll see. Beyond that, watch out for likely nominations in Best Picture, Best Director for George C. Wolfe, and Best Actress for Viola Davis. Below the line, the film will be a force, as well. Suffice it to say, the streaming service has big time Academy Award contender here.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is supremely well executed. Whether it’s Boseman, Davis, or Wolfe, everyone involved is bringing their best. The result is something that’s impossible not to be captivated by. While you may have wanted to see more actual Ma Rainey, seeing Chadwick Boseman like this is a bittersweet pleasure. He’s outstanding, but we should have been just getting started with him. Sadly, this will have to stand as the crowning performance of his career, but it’s such a good film, it can hold that weight with ease.