Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman
Director: George C. Wolfe
Running Time: 94 mins
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an American film about a 1927 recording session in Chicago, as tensions rise between ‘Mother of the Blues’ Ma Rainey, her management, and an ambitious horn player in her band.
Lively, soulful and with a lot to say, there’s no getting past the fact that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a fantastic film. Bringing all the energy of a classic stage play, as well as the resonance and soul of the music it pays homage to, it’s a film which thrills with a fast-paced rhythm and a whole host of incredible performances.
First things first, though, I’ll say that I’ve never seen the play on which this film is based, but it’s clear as day that this film pays tribute to its source material in incredible fashion.
Not only does it unfold in a contained environment with a small but brilliantly captivating cast, but the movie is every bit as theatrical as it is cinematic. Combining an ingenious use of camerawork and production design with all the classic trappings of a stage piece, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is at its best entirely mesmerising.
But beyond that, the way that this film pops off the screen with its own soul and rhythm is absolutely spectacular. It’s as dynamic as Ma Rainey and her band’s music, and it’s as fast-paced and energetic as the roaring twenties at their height.
Fluctuating wildly between patient, quiet soliloquies and intense, rapid-fire back-and-forth, the dialogue here is second to none, embodying the spirit of its source material while bringing to light the deeper points that the story is really trying to showcase.
Because while this is an interesting little snapshot into the legend of Ma Rainey, the story has a much wider relevance, acting as a microcosm for the story of so many African Americans in the 20th century.
A captivating and ultimately sobering view on race and African Americans’ place in modern America, this movie has a gift for saying so much in so few words. Along with the thrilling essence and atmosphere, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom uses subtext and metaphor to fantastic effect, offering a more powerful and resonant perspective on its core subject matter than so many other films dealing with similar issues.
In that, this film manages to combine its immensely entertaining and magnetic energy with genuinely captivating and thought-provoking drama, with the two different elements of the story working hand-in-hand to make this a sumptuous cinematic experience.
And finally, the icing on the cake comes in the form of the performances. Though not the person with the most screen time, Viola Davis dominates this film as Ma Rainey herself, with an incredible presence from a transformative performance that you feel through every moment.
Meanwhile, Chadwick Boseman is electrifying as the hot-headed, ambitious member of the band, and Colman Domingo is a real stand-out among the supporting players. All of the actors step up to the mark in a range of demanding roles, with the film’s dialogue-heavy nature and faithfulness to a musical rhythm all the more reason to praise these fantastic performances.
Overall, then, I was hugely impressed by Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Not only a masterpiece in its adaptation of the stage play to the screen, but also an ingenious and thrillingly energetic film which blends an irresistible musical rhythm with deep, sobering drama, and featuring some incredible performances just to top it all off. So, that’s why I’m giving the film an 8.0.