Chicago, 1927. 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”. Not only do their characters produce gold records, but Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman could also see gold coming their way come Oscars night for their incredible performances in this adaptation of August Wilson’s play.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom never quite shakes its theatrical roots. Essentially a chamber piece filled with dialogue, director George C. Wolfe successfully turns this apparent limitation into one of the film’s strengths and turns the single location into a claustrophobic pressure cooker. Just as temperatures soar outside, tensions threaten to boil over inside, in a manner not unlike Do The Right Thing. It too uses an oppressive heatwave and short timeline to explore broader social issues within a microcosm: exploring individuals’ petty personal rivalries, racial tensions, and power imbalances to comment more broadly on the African American historical experience. As the tagline says, “Everything comes out in the Blues”.
Every actor in the ensemble has come to play; from band leader Cutler (Colman Domingo) to veteran pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), each band member gets their moment to shine. Riffing off each other, they inhabit the screen in perfect harmony, making sweet music together. It is Chadwick Boseman, however, who steals the show. Every time he steps up to the proverbial mic, he reminds the audience of his incredible talent that will be sorely missed from the silver screen. His Levee is charming yet immature, talented yet fallible, with a fierce rage burning from deep inside. His incendiary monologue explaining the root of his anger towards white people alone is enough to guarantee him a posthumous Oscar nomination.
And as fantastic as Boseman’s Levee is, the name above the marquee still says Ma Rainey – and with good reason. She may arrive late in the day to her own recording session but once Viola Davis makes her entrance, there is absolutely no question as to who is in charge, and shame on anyone who may attempt to steal her spotlight. It is a Diva-licious performance full of sweat, swagger, and soul, which further elevates this fantastic Netflix offering.
It might be called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom but expect it to be top of the charts this Awards season.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now available to stream on Netflix.