Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½

The latest Netflix original to arrive on the service. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in Chicago, 1927 amidst a recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable "Mother of the Blues". 

I knew nothing about the material that this film was based upon (which isn’t an issue when watching) and was mainly intrigued by the strong double cast header of Davis and Boseman (in his final live action role). The film delivers a tightly paced and engaging 90 minutes, with a structure and presentation that keeps it apart from a lot of the formulaic music biopics, but at the same time does lack substance and has some jarring tonal shifts.

It’s clear upon post viewing that this was originally a stage production. The placement of the characters, limited location settings (90% of the film plays out in and around a recording studio) and the dialogue itself at times. This one location setting works effectively as a claustrophobic and energy crafting backing for the plot, especially when character tensions start to rise as the film progresses. Unfortunately the film never feels truly substantial, some potential key plot and character elements are quickly displayed and never brought up again or have any ramifications and the quick switching between bantering to deadly serious and genuinely shocking in terms of the finale are quite jarring.
Thematically the themes of racial tension and discrimination are on full display here and though familiar in their portrayal are no less effective and striking when on display.

The film captures the era very well and the set design, costumes and props are excellently crafted and look very authentic. There are some creative editing techniques throughout and there is some nice cinematography. Though it may avoid the traditional structure and presentation, the film visually does look very much like a music biopic, not that that’s a bad thing per say. Though I’m not a big fan of the genre of music that the film centres on, the score and diegetic music are good.

Viola Davis has a brooding and powerful presence over the film. Ma Rainey isn’t a particularly likeable character, but her commanding performance makes it impossible not to side with her. However it’s Boseman’s cocky, unpredictable and enthusiastic trumpet player Levee that steals the show. A fantastically wired performance that ranges from playful to terrifying, and just emphasises how much of a talent Boseman was and how much the industry will miss him. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a very solid and engaging music themed drama. Featuring two brilliant lead performances and a unique presentation and approach to the material. Though it may lack substance overall and it’s tonal shifts are jarring at points, it nonetheless provides some powerful commentary and standout moments that make it worth watching.

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