Based on the 1928 play of the same name, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over the course of a single afternoon, in a Chicago recording studio, where tensions rise as a band of musicians and the studio management await the legendary Ma Rainey (Viola Davis).
Directed incredibly well by George C. Wolfe, this film oozes style across each and every department. It’s visually stunning, the story is tight, the music is powerful, the performances are mesmerising and the dialogue is absolutely flawless. It’s a complete package that almost never misses a beat. Themes of unsettling racism overlap with the incredible influence of blues legend Ma Rainey in what is a captivating journey riddled with unpredictability. The narrative rapidly introduces us to the core characters and lets the dialogue speak volumes as to who these people are and the past experiences that have shaped them. No time is wasted as, with a 90 minute runtime, everything is orchestrated and planned out with the punctuality of an actual play. The dialogue is absolutely stellar the entire way through – it’s what really drives the story and gives you everything you need to know in the shortest amount of time.
Weaving through this story is an absolute rollercoaster. As the tension rises, the heat picks up and the pace quickens – it puts you on-edge, giving you the feeling that at some point everything is going to boil over and the pressure cooker is going to explode. The entire thing runs for 90 minutes and takes place in a single afternoon, but the claustrophobic nature of being trapped in this recording studio makes it seem like a lifetime. Backed by the soulful sound of blues tunes, Ma Rainey’s importance and influence on the rise of the blues is seen through every single scene and interaction she has with the recording studio management. However, despite having Ma Rainey at the centre of the film, it’s the performance of another character who steals the show.
His character’s name may not be in the title, but it’s Chadwick Boseman who puts in a performance so good that you may as well lock him in for the Oscar. His performance as Levee, the band’s trumpeter, is so powerful and impactful that it makes him the undisputed standout. It really does feel like his movie as he’s surely on-screen more than the titular blues star. His delivery of every line of dialogue is flawless – absolutely perfect across each scene. It’s a showcase of the immense talent Chadwick harnessed, in what is one of the performances of the year. His character’s solo monologues are spectacular, but it’s also the way he bounces off the other characters that makes his performance so much more layered. Viola Davis should not be overlooked for her intense performance as Ma Rainey, really making an impact on some of the more racially poignant moments in the story. Her back and forth with Boseman and the rest of the cast is just brilliantly entertaining. This is the result when you have two powerhouse actors at the forefront.
Beyond Chadwick and Viola, there are other supporting performances that should no go unmentioned. Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts accompany Chadwick as the members of the band, and their ensemble performance is just as thrilling to watch. Theres a tight chemistry evident through every single one of their interactions that builds this bond they have and adds so much to the key moments of the narrative. Each of them do well in exhibiting their character’s distinct personality, making each one known, understood and memorable in their own right. I could go about praising everyone in this film as they all shine in their own way – an awesome all-round cast.
In the end, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a work of art, one that features a deeply engaging and gradually intensifying story that is sure to hold your gaze the entire time. The main draw of this film is the performance from Chadwick Boseman. He is nothing short of incredible across every single moment, to the point where his scenes will end and all I’m doing is waiting for his next on-screen moment. Every line of dialogue is delivered to perfection and, of course, Viola Davis delivers a powerful performance as the titular Ma Rainey. For fans of the story, the play, the music or those wiishing to see the final (and best) performance from Chadwick Boseman, this is not to be missed.