Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½

I don't like saying this is a film carried by its performances but...this is a film carried by its performances.

This second August Wilson film adaptation has very similar problems to the first one, despite, in my eyes, being a massive improvement. Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom both suffer from a lack of directorial strength despite their strengths in their screenplays. Fences feels far too much like a play not adapted nearly enough into film, though this movie improves on that slightly. There's more flare and more visual intrigue alongside some strong editing choices. The story works for me and I find the setting to be a strong companion to what we're being told. That being said, it's hard to shake the feeling that this is Netflix attempting to make a movie that feels like it takes place in the 1920s. That is far and away its biggest downfall. It feels way too clean and this lack of a visceral style for what winds up being a tragic story has the ability to remove the audience from it. I wish a Steve McQueen or an Ava DuVernay had picked up this project. I think the improvements to it would've been massive.

The script is strong, the style is halfway there but not completely finished and Davis, Boseman and Domingo stand out amidst the rest and carry us to the finish line. I don't want it to sound like I disliked the film; I most certainly didn't. The story kept me captivated from start to finish and I truly was never bored. It's simply missing that middle step to move itself from solid film work to excellent film work. I hope that if Denzel Washington upholds his plan to continue adapting August Wilson's work, the future entries will include stronger direction. I know his hope for the following film is to have Barry Jenkins behind it. I think that would be a very very wise decision.