Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) movie review
Released on Netflix back in December, 2020, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a drama based on the play by August Wilson. The film follows a single recording session in 1920s Chicago as tensions rise between real life ‘Mother of Blues’ Ma Rainey, her striving horn player, and the manager. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards this past Monday including Lead Actor and Actress for stars Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, with Boseman winning the Golden Globe for Lead Actor just recently. While there does seem to be a divide between critics and audiences, the film does have predominately strong reviews.
I am obviously a bit behind, but after I missed it back in December, I figured I would just hold off the last three Oscar films until the week after nominations. We just talked about The Father last weekend, and we will have Minari up this weekend! So without any further adieu, here’s Academy Award nominee Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom…
Actually before I dive in, I want to give a quick shoutout to the craft put into this film. This is a really wel made film, and everything from the production design, costumes, editing, cinematography- it all works very well! So well that I feel bad for not talking about it further. Just- not bad enough to, you know, actually talk about it further…
Okay so you can break Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom into two real categories for review: Story and performances. And your enjoyment from this film will stem from which one means more to you. As far as the story goes, it is both minimalistic and incredibly captivating. The film essentially boils down to characters, as the story is just this band trying to get through a recording session. More specifically, protagonist Levee (Boseman), who has the largest character arc in the film. However while his arc is thoroughly compelling, it takes a very interesting turn that, while I understand, lands on a note that doesn’t seem to fit the tone of the film. It works for the story being told, however it does feel almost out of place by the end of the film.
That said, it works because it is being sold by one of two absolutely incredible performances! Chadwick Boseman is energetic and emotional, and he buries himself in this character to an almost unrecognizable degree. He probably should go on to win this posthumous Oscar, as this was arguably his greatest and most enchanting performance. Similarly, Viola Davis steals every single scene she is in, not only because of the incredible makeup and hairstyling that helps make her totally unrecognizable, but because of the screen presence she brings to this character. What is more incredible is that she takes a character that should be completely dislikable and manages to convince the audience that, while she is downright mean sometimes, she also knows best. And as the film progresses, you begin to truly understand Ma Rainey.
So I think in the end it truly does depend on what you want from a film. If you want a very well made film that is bound to win at least one if not two Oscars for incredible performances, the quality of Ma Rainey will carry the film. However if you want a film that feels complete on every level, this one honestly doesn’t stand as tall as One Night in Miami (2020) or The Father (2021). That said, all three of these films have unique strengths that help them to stand out in differnet ways, and this has some masterful performances with incredible compelling character writing that makes it a must see for me. 8/10.
So Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? Did you watch it yet? What did you think? And which of these three play-based Oscar films did you think was best? Be sure to leave a like or a comment below and let us know! And if you liked this review and you want to read more like it, be sure to let us know below what we should talk about next!
-review by Ryan Prince