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Review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ivor Holmes reviews the relevant new film adaptation of the fiery play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

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Image Credit: Netflix

Director: George C. Wolfe
Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman
Running Time: 1h 34m
Rating: 15

Propelled forward by two explosive performances, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom handles issues of black exploitation, art and religion with intelligence and spirit. In a recording studio in 1920s Chicago, the band of legendary blues singer Ma Rainey awaits her arrival on a sweltering hot day. Levee is the energetic but troubled young trumpet player who has his eye on his own band, and is determined to shake up the recording with his own arrangement, setting himself on a course to Clash with Ma. Cutler, Toledo and Slow Drag are the older band members, who talk of the need for black collective resistance, and the place of God in a racist world. When Ma arrives, she is determined to record her song her own way, without the deceitful interference of the white producers, who attempt to swindle the black performers at every turn.

Chadwick Boseman’s last performance on screen is arguably his best, expertly portraying the talented but sensitive trumpet player Levee, tormented by the childhood trauma of racist violence. He hopes to score a new band with the white producers with his ‘smile’ and by saying ‘yes, sir’. Ma Rainey is a woman who knows better; despite entering with a manner of royalty, she has to fight constantly with the producers to finish the record on her own terms. She is brilliantly played by Viola Davis, who manages to capture both her haughtiness and her wisdom. At the beginning, Ma seems as rigid and difficult as her proud gait, but we soon realise her tempestuousness is not a character defect, but rather her determination to reclaim power. Boseman and Davis’ emotionally tortured, fiery speeches are the highlights of the film, as they both attempt to answer the question: what should a black artist do when met with a system designed to treat them as a means to an end?

Adapted from the 1982 play of the same name by August Wilson, the film makes no effort to hide its theatrical origins, taking place almost entirely within two rooms, and featuring lengthy monologues. Whilst this allows for several fiery emotional speeches, it also means the film sometimes feels stilted; there are moments which are easy to imagine feeling natural on a stage which feel out of place on camera. The film also suffers from disorientating editing; I frequently became distracted by an avalanche of cuts where one would have sufficed.

Despite these flaws, the exceptional performances and deeply relevant, sharp writing means Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is well worth its short running time.

Editors Note: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix

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