Tensions rise when the trailblazing Mother of the Blues and her band gather at a Chicago recording studio in 1927. Adapted from August Wilson's play.
Usually, at the end of each year, I prepare my watchlist for the next twelve months. Obviously, no matter how many movies I add to the list, I know dozens of more films will be announced and released throughout the year. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of them. I didn’t know a thing about this flick, but it received the always interesting awards buzz, which turned it into a mandatory viewing before Christmas comes around. I went in knowing only one thing: this is Chadwick Boseman’s (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War) last appearance after he passed away a few months ago. I really didn’t know what to expect from this Netflix’s Oscar-bait, but I was afraid that Boseman’s nomination chances were high only due to what happened in real-life instead of him truly deserving that recognition…
Well, I can safely and confidently write that Boseman delivers his career-best interpretation, and it wouldn’t be unfair for him to get tons of awards posthumously. From an impeccable accent to his mind-blowing emotional range, passing through long monologues and uncut takes effortlessly, Boseman is the strong glue that holds everything in place. What seems, at first, a hangout movie (narrative without a clear central plot) turns into a character-study. Levee wants to follow his dreams, do what he does best in his own conditions and with his personal interpretation of music and soul. Boseman incorporates this character seamlessly, delivering a memorable performance that I hope will be remembered as a worthy Oscar winner if this situation ends up becoming true.
Even though Boseman is the actor that shines brighter, every single one is absolutely outstanding. Viola Davis shares the main spotlight with him by representing the (real-life) iconic blues singer, Ma Rainey. To be completely honest, I didn’t know who this singer was nor how she impacted soul music. Ruben Santiago-Hudson first feature-film screenplay is packed with entertaining banter between the band members but also with heartfelt, gut-wrenching, shocking monologues that deeply explore a character’s past and personality. Davis tackles every single line of hers with brutal intensity and extreme expressiveness, constantly offering 200% of her energy.
George C. Wolfe (first movie I see of his) demonstrates exquisite control of every scene and elevates the dialogue-driven narrative with an exceptional balance of tone and pacing. Tobias A. Schliessler’s camera lingers beautifully on the actors, allowing them to showcase their abilities but also helping the viewer feel enthralled with their words by not creating any unnecessary technical distractions. Andrew Mondshein’s editing also contributes a lot to the smooth pace that the film warrants, but it’s Branford Marsalis’ inspiring, soulful score that will probably encourage most viewers to enjoy the overall movie. Technically, I can’t point out a single issue. Huge praise for the appropriate costume design and overall production value.
Honestly, I don’t really have much to complain about. It might not have a conventional main plot, but it’s also far from being a “nothing” film. As I mentioned above, the banter between Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and Levee is incredibly amusing and genuinely hilarious at times. However, it goes down through an unexpected dark path, ultimately culminating in a surprising finale. Every character has their own monologue containing details of their personal lives, which I regularly felt interested in, despite the repetitive structure. It works as a character-study, mainly about Levee and Ma Rainey, but also as a fun, good time that goes by quicker than I initially anticipated.
In the end, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is going to be forever remembered as Chadwick Boseman’s last role. Call it destiny, but it’s, undoubtedly, Boseman’s career-best performance. Hopefully, if he ends up winning an Oscar posthumously, this won’t be identified as a charity recognition but as a worthy, fair, triumphant celebration of his inspiring, impactful talent on-screen. Viola Davis also shines in this uncommon narrative, which focuses its spotlight on long, uncut, engaging monologues, captivating dialogues, and entertaining banter, all handled effortlessly by every actor involved. Despite the absence of a clear central plot, it’s closer to a character-study than to a hangout flick. George C. Wolfe and Ruben Santiago-Hudson deliver a technically flawless movie with an excellent balance of its tone and pacing but also boasting impeccable cinematography, seamless editing, and a soulful score. It’s definitely a serious contender for the awards season, so make sure to save ninety minutes of your Christmas season to enjoy this simple yet surprising story.
Escape Artists, Mundy Lane Entertainment by George C. Wolfe, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, August Wilson.
Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman.
Genres: Drama, Music
Keywords: chicago, illinois recording studio lesbian relationship based on play or musical singer lgbt blues music trumpet player 1920s
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