George C. Wolfe (director)
1h 34mins (length)
17 December 2020 (released)
17 December 2020
Millions of people around the world were left shocked and devastated at Chadwick Boseman's untimely death in August, and while seeing him in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom may make fans sad, it should also bring them comfort to see him deliver an almighty final performance.
The film, based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, is set in a recording studio in Chicago one hot and sweaty afternoon in 1927.
Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), the fearless diva known as the Mother of the Blues, is running late and her band await her arrival in the rehearsal room where tensions arise between hot-headed trumpeter Levee (Boseman), bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman). Levee ruffles feathers by flirting with Ma’s girlfriend and making his desire to play his own music and start his own band known.
If you didn't know this was based on a play you would realise it soon enough thanks to the singular location and the dense dialogue. With the exception of a few short outdoor scenes, the film is set squarely in the downstairs rehearsal room and then the upstairs recording space once Ma eventually shows up. Her arrival was welcome because it broke up her band's heated war of words, which was started by Levee airing all sorts of grievances.
This film should be seen, even if it's just for the performances, as Boseman and Davis’ names are very likely to come up this awards season.
We’ve, literally, never seen Davis like this before - she is practically unrecognisable as Ma thanks to the weight she gained for the role, plus the heavy make-up and gold teeth she wears. Ma is fierce, determined, and refuses to make any compromises, much to the displeasure of her white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne).
Considering Boseman was secretly battling colon cancer at the time, it’s truly an incredible feat that he managed to pull off such a demanding energetic performance in his last-ever film role. There is so much anger and rage in Levee from past trauma and he is constantly going off on rants. He is a man on the edge and Boseman threw his all into the role.
It may take a while to get going but Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is worth checking out for the performances, the fascinating recording scenes, and the shocking finale.