Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½

We're fortunate to have gotten now several cinematic adaptations of the plays of August Wilson. Inevitably, some feel stagier than others, with this being one of the stagiest, to the point where it even feels claustrophobic. Its characters -- limited by circumstance and of course race -- are jammed into tiny brick rooms in basements and the like. The entirety of this film is contained within a one-day studio recording session, and frankly, nothing happens except for a smattering of personality conflicts.

The writing and the performances are the stars here. I probably would've given the Best Actress Oscar to Viola Davis for her turn as Ma Rainey, and not just because it's so showy. While the late Chadwick Boseman is incendiary here, particularly during that memorable scene when he shakes his fist at God, I'm more upset that we lost this actor so soon than that he lost the Best Actor Oscar to Anthony Hopkins ("The Father"), who deservedly won.

I enjoy the blues as much as the next person, but could never perform them credibly. I haven't lived the kind of life required to even begin to try. Watching this movie, although it feels like a lesser effort in the August Wilson stage-to-screen project, I got a real sense of where the blues come from.