Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½

This will be remembered as it being the last performance of Chadwick Boseman’s career, a career cut so short by Cancer earlier this year, so it’s not surprising when I say that this registered a sense of painful emotion that wouldn’t have happened otherwise – the performance in this film from Boseman is perhaps his greatest performance: a combination of both ridiculous ambition and electrifying charm (and from what it seems, he’s got the Academy Award nomination for this in the bag – even the win, perhaps). “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” also boosts an incredible performance from Viola Davis, who clashes with Boseman’s energy with a power unlike anything she’s ever given – her performance in “Fences” (another August Wilson play-turned-film) is her at her most compassionate and vulnerable and this is her at her most powerful and controlled – the two are giving two of the best performances of the year.

The film does keep my attention – how could it not – but I think the main problem with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is that it’s apparent that the play restricts the overall film: the limitations of movement are noted throughout this thing and this is my problem for many of these adaptations – the inability to allow things to breathe naturally through a stage adaptation is noted throughout all of the ones that make it obvious (the ones that don’t are ones that tend to fair better for me). What “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” does then to compel an audience is to muster out performances we can latch onto: I mentioned the two leads, but everyone in this film is incredible and we’re hanging onto everything that’s being said because of this. The themes aren’t as fleshed out as I'd like, but the cast makes it their own and through some incredible dialogue, we’re fascinated and entertained and effected by their outcomes.

Once again, RIP Chadwick.

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