Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½

This film is based on a celebrated play from the great August Wilson, which imagines a fictional story that interrogates issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation in the context of Jim Crow America (and its reverberations to the present) while revolving around a real historical figure, Ma Rainey. A black lesbian in an era in which either identity alone could spell a death sentence, Ma Rainey was a brilliant and influential blues singer, and one of the first popular musicians to record her songs for commercial distribution. She is a commanding presence in this film, depicted as a badass who skillfully utilizes her financial power as a hit musician to dominate in a room full of straight white male managers and producers. Every scene she is in is electric, and that comes down to the acting. Everyone here does a top notch job, but it's Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and the late Chadwick Boseman as the fictional trumpeter Levee that absolutely steal the show. If at least one of these two aren't nominated for Oscars this award season, it will be a travesty.

However, the film is lacking, in my opinion. I haven't seen the play on which this is based, and I don't doubt that the material here works phenomenally on stage. That doesn't always translate well on film, and this movie ends up feeling more theatrical than cinematic, which isn't a good thing. The writing is really good, and the acting is uniformly superb, but certain scenes (think two very jarringly dark and excruciatingly long monologues from Levee) that work excellently on stage just don't work here. Part of this is that the film doesn't pace itself and handle tone shifts the way I imagine the play does. Most of the film is a ludicrously enjoyable "hang out film," light on plot but heavy on character and dialogue, which allows the actors to shine. This is overwhelmingly funny, with subtle socio-political commentary, and a healthy dose of memorable moments (the car wreck, recording the intro to the song Black Bottom, etc). So when the film gets incredibly heavy, with scenes interrogating sexual assault, lynchings, and the apathy of God, the scenes are too intense and too long, before the film returns to business as usual. That's tonally dissonant, and difficult to watch. I don't blame the play, which I imagine navigates these shifts with subtlety; this 90 minute Netflix film doesn't have the running time to be that balanced. The cinematic aspects of the film - the cinematography, the use of zooms, the editing, the staging, and even the lip syncing on the singing - are also shoddy at worst, and awkward at best.

This is a thematically rich, but tonally inconsistent and somewhat on the nose, film that is carried by the strength of its cast, but at least presents lengthy sequences of enjoyable character moments.