Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Title: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
MPAA Rating: R
Director: George C. Wolfe
Starring: Colman Domingo, Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman
Runtime: 1 hr 34 mins

What It Is: George C. Wolfe’s faithful Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s eponymous play stars Viola Davis as the titular blues diva, a Black woman vehemently defending her artistic vision in a hyper-capitalist music industry that inherently devalues Black artistry. The centerpiece of the conflict, however, is the growing tension between members of her band, wherein the presence of the young, tortured Levee (Chadwick Boseman) acts as a disruptive force.

What We Think: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of the best films of the year, and Boseman delivers the kind of emotionally multilayered, exquisitely physical performance that ought to net him a posthumous Oscar. His facial expressions in one pivotal monologue scene are bereft of any actorly tics; they are jarringly and frighteningly and hauntingly human. He makes Levee a real person, and there is nothing of the self-congratulation found in typical Oscar-bait performances. True to its source material, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is almost entirely dialogue-driven, with very few changes of scenery; however, the tension and tragedy are palpable. Boseman is perfect, as much as it is possible to attain perfection–as an actor and as a psychologist. Levee’s tortured past and the flippant arrogance he has developed as a defense mechanism are the cruces of the story, and the actor is incredibly perceptive. He is so good that he is often hard to watch. Little of Wilson’s original dialogue has been changed, which renders the finished product refreshingly ungentrified by Hollywood. Wolfe also adds subtle visual commentary on the co-opting of Black music by white artists, and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson embellishes the play’s under-explored queer themes by developing the relationship between Ma Rainey and her lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige).

Grade: A, This is an excellent film I will only be able to see once. It is well-written, intelligent, and devastating. It is not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the best Netflix original films of all time.  Everything from its screenplay to its atmospheric lighting is expertly crafted. It destroyed me, and everyone must see it so it can destroy them, too.

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Author: Hope Renata