tue 28/09/2021

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom review - keeping things theatrical | reviews, news & interviews

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom review - keeping things theatrical

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom review - keeping things theatrical

George Wolfe's screen adaption includes terrific turns from Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis and Colman Domingo

There was always bound to be a hint of melancholy watching George Wolfes Ma Raineys Black Bottom. Try as you might to focus on the film, you can never quite shake the fact that youre watching the final performance of Chadwick Boseman, whose life was cut tragically short this year from bowel cancer. 

This adaptation of Wilsons play is the second in a ten-part cycle that chronicles the Black experience throughout the course of the 20th century. Its produced by Denzel Washington, who himself starred in Fences, another Wilson play, back in 2016. This chapter focuses on the life of Ma Rainey, the originator of the Blues, with the title coming from her tune, "Black Bottom Dance".

Chadwick Boseman as Levee in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Set for the most part in a sweltering Chicago recording studio in the 1920s, we meet three old-hat musicians: Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), as well as the young and ambitious Levee (Boseman), who have gathered to work with Ma (Viola Davis) on a new album. 

Wolfe has stayed true to the theatrical origins of the text. The film feels like a chamber piece, and each scene is a pressure cooker in which the quartet of musicians verbally (and sometimes physically) spar whilst sharing their struggles. The intensity is dialled up by swindling producers and of course the domineering presence of Ma (Viola Davis). 

Davis’s performance crackles. Even when she isnt in the room, her presence is felt. Davis captures Ma in all her complexity –  a regal figure, fearsome yet vulnerable, who is alert to the potential of white producers stripping her music of its authenticity for white audiences. Physically, the scenes in the Jim Crow south see Ma in all her glory, smeared in grease paint with golden grills. Her eyes look wild, taking in each moment to make sure all other eyes are on her and no one else – which is why Levee presents such a threat. 

Eager to steal the spotlight, Levee (Boseman) is intelligent and driven, but haunted. Eager to please producers, he wants to work the system in his favour in a less domineering manner than Ma, dreaming of being able to record his own songs. Its a tremendous final performance, full of fury, anger and rage. He desperately wants to escape the racially motivated violence of his childhood and the ongoing racism he endures every day. Bosemans potent performance will make you forget the tragedy, but when the credits roll you cant help wondering what he might have achieved given more years. 

Wolfe has crafted an impressive film. The production design looks stunning, the performances are standout, and the third act comes with an emotional wallop that causes you to choke. Yet, despite all these masterfully crafted elements, it still feels theatrical rather than cinematic.  

Each scene is a pressure cooker in which the quartet of musicians verbally (and physically) spar

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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