Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★

I think August Wilson's Pulitzer prize winning stage play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is one of those efforts served best by remaining a stage play rather than being stretched into a 90 minute feature, confined largely to a volatile recording studio in Chicago during 1927. Wilson's "Fences" got adapted for the screen a few years back by Denzel Washington, and thrived on the same kind of theatrical life blood that this one does. They even have the great Viola Davis in common. Fences felt like a real film though, uneven and a little bit stagey, but an actual film.

"Ma Rainey" struggles to find a satisfying structure and rhythm to fully activate the cinematic possibilities. I keep wondering what this picture would have looked like had someone with a sharp compositional style like Steve McQueen got his fingerprints on the project. We already got a taste of his rich, bluesy atmosphere in the terrific "Lover's Rock" in the Small Axe anthology. While it does cover some of the same emotional territory with regards to the suppression of the black spirit and ever present specter of white supremacy, the filmmaking in Ma Rainy feels almost inert by comparison.

So, what works?

On balance, I'd say "Ma Rainey" is worth seeing at least once for the unusually sharp performances at the top from Viola Davis and, ESPECIALLY, the late Chadwick Boseman. Davis might be at the top of the marquee, but this is Boseman's show. He plays the fiery and ambitious young trumpeter named Levee Green who gives what is possibly the most raw and affecting monologue of the year as he recounts his past trauma. The added melancholy of watching Bosman in his final performance is almost stifled by just how driven and compelling his portrayal is here. It's impossible not to feel a ache of sadness knowing just the sort of career that was ahead of this man.

Rest in Peace Mr. Bosman. You went out like a king. I just wish the rest of this film matched even half the energy and verve as the lead performance.

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