Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★★

2020 Ranked

“One, two... you know what to do!”

One of my most anticipated releases from Netflix this year, and it didn’t disappoint. A perfect showcase of Chadwick Bozeman’s talents as an actor, a gorgeous last performance from an actor who will be severely missed. 

The film certainly feels like it’s an adaptation of a stage play. It takes place over one afternoon, and in very limited sets. These sets feel small, cramped, claustrophobic, all adding together to really push forwards the air of rising tension that progresses through the afternoon. It’s this rising of tensions between the small group that really pushes the narrative forwards. There’s plenty of hard hitting moments scattered throughout the film, this idea of the blues music being escapism from the more cruel outside world.  

The nature of the film therefore relies more heavily on its actors and the performances they bring to craft the compelling narrative forwards. There’s so many great moments with these actors, monologues and stories that are driven solely by the fantastic performances instead. The music or lack of in a lot of the more tender scenes really helps with the natural feeling of these moments. It allows the raw emotions of the actors to shine through.

Chadwick Boseman gives an utterly brilliant performance in his final role. The cheekiness and charm of his character hiding the darker thoughts and feelings that slowly come through as the film goes on. The monologue alone shows how brilliant he was, haunting, raw and emotional. Viola Davis is as great as she ever is as Ma. Her performance feels rich and demanding, really bringing this complex woman to life. The struggles of her life really showing through her musical performances.

The script is great, the dialogue feels natural and quick paced.  The back and forth between the band feeling natural and real, but slowing down when it needs too. It does at times feel like it suffers from being too much like a play, but that’s only a minor niggle. Saying that though, it’s the performances that truly shine the most, some of the best I’ve seen this year.

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