After a mixed bag of Netflix Originals to get them to join in on the conversation (ahum ‘Hillbilly Elegy‘), it seems like Netflix has a winner on their hands. Mark my words – Pulitzer-winner August Wilson‘s play-turned-into-cinematic-triumph will be one of next year’s award season’s front runners. The film will also get some serious global attention as it stars the late Chadwick Boseman, in his final performance.
Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians await trailblazing performer, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Academy Award® winner Viola Davis). Late to the session, the fearless, fiery Ma engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music. As the band waits in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious cornet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) — who has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend and is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry — spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives.
George C. Wolfe‘s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom‘ (perfectly adapted to the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) celebrates the transformative power of the blues and the artists who refuse to let society’s prejudices dictate their worth. With an ensemble cast this commanding, and also adapted from a play, the comparisons with Regina King’s directorial debut, ‘One Night in Miami…‘, are easily made. In my personal opinion, I prefer Wolfe’s film over King’s, as it is able to keep the pacing going, without letting the viewer down with less than stellar film making. Enough about that, everyone gets their chance to shine, and opinions will differ. That’s the beauty of cinema.
As the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that tension exists between the overly ambitious cornet player Levee and veteran players Cutler (Colman Domingo‘s star just keeps on rising) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). Where the former is impatient and doesn’t like following those in charge, the older musicians know the rules of the game and know how to lay low when it comes to white people. Toledo (Glynn Turman) is the funny one in this bunch of characters, often telling lighter stories while reminiscing about his life. The writing, in particular when it comes to the monologues are powerful and quite heartbreaking at times. Especially when they discuss love, racism, religion and death, heartstrings are getting pulled to full extent. It’s almost poetic watching a bunch of musicians just sitting around and listening carefully to what one another have to share.
It also helps that all actors are extraordinarily talented. Davis in particular knows how to blend into her character, as previously proven on the small and big screen. The whole film takes place in just two different locations, with some quick flashes to right outside the building, but never feels confined or limited in what it is capable to explore and express. Ma demands things to go her way. She is respected in the African-American community and wants her status as “The Mother of the Blues” to stay intact. She’s an independent woman, who knows good enough these white men only need her to make money off of her back. They never see her as an actual person. Davis in particular is beyond sensational, but really, no one gets left behind, even the smallest side characters get their moment, resulting in some really heartwarming moments.
The production design, costume design, make up and hair, editing, sound design, … you name it and they have it covered to the finest details. ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom‘ is a formidable drama that represents the time period accurately through the inspiring and heartbreaking stories these musicians share with each other. This being Boseman’s final, and best performance of his career, makes every scene he’s in even harder to witness, resulting in a saddening final act that’ll leave you in tears. Rest in peace, Chadwick.
Netflix Review – ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’
Reviewed on Netflix, December 6, 2020. Rating: R. Running time: 94 min.
PRODUCTION: A Netflix release and production. Producers: Todd Black (p.g.a.), Denzel Washington (p.g.a.), Dany Wolf.
CREW: Director: George C. Wolfe. Screenplay: Ruben Santiago-Hudson (based on the play by August Wilson). Editing: Andrew Mondshein. Cinematography: Tobias A. Schliessler. Score: Branford Marsalis.
WITH: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Jeremy Shamos, Taylour Paige, Jonny Coyne, Michael Potts, Dusan Brown.