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Film Review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

22 December 20 words: Miriam Blakemore-Hoy

Miriam Blakemore-Hoy reviews the final film to star the late great Chadwick Boseman...

Director: George C. Wolfe
Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman
Running time: 94 minutes

Based on a play by August Wilson, this is the second offering by producer Denzel Washington, in a promised cycle of ten plays adapted to screen, and it’s a phenomenal performance given by a mesmerising cast. Ma Rainey was a real-life figure, one of the first blues recording artists, who performed in the early 1920’s across the South in America. A larger-than-life character, and inspiration to performers like Janis Joplin and Dinah Washington, Rainey was ahead of her time as a liberated bisexual businesswoman who wrote her own music and made an independent living from her talents when most women were stuck at home in housework drudgery. The film, like the play, is a snapshot look at a day in her life as she comes together with her band to record a new album.   

In the title role, Viola Davis is astonishing. I’ve never seen her quite like this before, despite a truly acclaimed film career. She owns this performance with a passion and veracity unlike any other. Drenched in sweat and caked in greasepaint, with a gold-glinted smile and an unapologetic attitude, Rainey holds all the people around her in her sway. To be a woman at the time was pretty hard, to be a musician even harder, and Davis accurately brings to the role the capriciousness and hard-heartedness needed to battle against the prejudice and discrimination bearing down on her. The weight of the pain and emotion that her character feels can be heard as she says, “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.”

Alongside Rainey are her band and her followers, who work to soften her sharp edges. There’s Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Levee (Chadwick Boseman) all trying to make a living in a world created for white men. While they all have their moments, it is Boseman’s character, Levee, that draws us in as he struggles to be recognised for his talents and not just used.

The power that Boseman unleashes is truly incredible

It is impossible to go without mentioning that this is Chadwick Boseman’s final role, the very fact of it changes our perception, whether we want it to or not. With the hindsight of knowing what he was personally suffering through, it is almost unbearable to watch his emaciated form, but the power that he unleashes in his delivery is truly incredible. In particular, during a monologue where his character Levee screams out at God, “Did you turn your back? Come on, turn your back on me! Where is you?” the pain and emotion in his eyes and face make you feel like you are not watching an actor giving an oration but listening to a person crying out from their very core. 

In some ways, this film has become something other than it should have been. If Boseman had lived, this might have been considered Viola Davis’ magnum opus. But as it is, it will be Boseman’s performance that is remembered. Boseman always put his heart and soul into his work, but he was also wise in his judgements of which roles to take on. After the success of Black Panther, it seems incredibly fitting that his final film would be one that highlights the plight and suffering that African Americans have experienced because of racism and segregation.  

Did you know? Viola Davis is set to portray Michelle Obama in the upcoming TV series First Ladies, which she described as “really frightening” in comparison to her role as Ma Rainey: "The only thing that's a little bit more comfortable about Ma Rainey is not a lot of people know her.”

Ma Rainey is available now on Netflix

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