Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½

This is a film adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name. It’s something of a chamber piece, as Ma Rainey, her band and their record producers come into all kinds of conflict during a recording session. Tensions rise between the optimistic but fiery horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) and the rest of the band as they engage in heated debates about art, religion and identity. 

This is Chadwick Boseman’s final film role, so it was certainly an emotional experience. Knowing of his tragic and unexpected death definitely added a shade of poignancy to the proceedings. 
I mean it though when I say his performance here is one for the ages. He’s left us with one final beautiful cinematic gift and it is truly the finest performance he’s ever given. Levee is the soul of the piece and Chadwick brings him to life as an incredibly captivating and heartbreaking figure. It’s looking likely that he’s going to win an Oscar for it, and I hope he does. And this isn’t a “he passed away so let’s honour him” Oscar. He is just that fucking good.

As for the film, there’s a lot I liked about it although I have similar issues that I had with Fences, another August Wilson adaptation. It definitely struggled to escape the “filmed play” trappings as it is extremely talky and doesn’t have much variety location-wise. Because of this it can be easy to lose focus or just feel beaten down by the amount of expositional dialogue. It moves along quickly but the direction and editing lack the flair to make it really pop.

Where it really shines is the dialogue and performances. There are so many interesting discussions had, and the film’s commentary on the bastardisation and theft of black culture and art really comes to the fore and hits very hard. This film isn’t perfect but I do feel it’s important and I’d recommend it to anyone. Even if only for Boseman’s spellbinding performance. Viola Davis is excellent too, along with the rest of the supporting ensemble.

Rest In Peace Chadwick Boseman. Still struggling to comprehend that this is the last we’re gonna see of him. An enormous loss of an incredible human being who lived for his art and fought to use his influence to elevate and empower black culture right to the very end. A King in every sense of the word. Can’t wait to hear his name called in a few months.

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