Friday 18 December 2020

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Movie Review)

It might be winter time in several places around the world right now, but the Oscar race just keeps on heating up. And the latest film to stake its claim for some Oscar consideration this awards season is the eagerly-anticipated Netflix drama, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Based on a play which was itself based on the real-life recording of the titular song, the movie is perhaps on most people's radars because it marks the final film appearance of the late Chadwick Boseman, who passed away earlier in the year.

Set in the late 1920s, the movie centers upon a single session at a music recording studio in Chicago. Viola Davis stars as Ma Rainey, the real-life singer that is often credited as "The Mother of Blues." A prima donna in every sense of the word, she is just as difficult to please as she is talented at what she does. And on this particular day, she is running late for her session at the studio.

Chadwick Boseman plays Levee, an ambitious trumpet player with dreams of putting together a band of his own. He has written a new arrangement of the song they were to be recording, one that his band mates have reservations about rehearsing despite the producer signing off on it. But when Ma Rainey arrives and insists on doing her own version, amidst several other demands, her manager (Jeremy Shamos) must do everything in his power to ensure that cooler heads prevail.

There's a lot to unpack in the relatively short runtime of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. And at the top of the list is the pair of stellar performances given by both Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The former was oftentimes unrecognizable as she fully embodied the character of Ma Rainey. Her larger-than-life presence was felt in every scene, and to say that she deserves a nomination at next year's Oscars is itself an understatement, not when she should be considered the current front runner.

Chadwick Boseman on the other hand was every bit her equal. He played the smooth talking yet hot-tempered trumpeter so well that I literally caught myself holding my breath during one particularly heartfelt monologue. And while he has given a number of transformative performances in the short time we've spent with him, no one can say that he didn't go out on a high note. Between this and Da 5 Bloods earlier in the year, the Black Panther actor had given two of his strongest performances.

But beyond the top-notch acting and period-accurate production design, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has things to say about interracial relations during the 1920s. Most of us already know what it was like for African Americans during those times. We've seen countless depictions in countless other movies. But it is the poignancy of this particular depiction that makes it so relevant to the experiences of the modern day African American.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is one of those rare gems of a movie where a solid script, stellar performances, great production design, and beautiful cinematography come together in the hands of a capable director. And as stacked as the competition for next year's Oscars is fast becoming, it is hard to see a ceremony where the film isn't represented in at least a few of those categories.


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