Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the latest awards contending prestige drama from Netflix, will likely forever be known for the final performance of the late actor Chadwick Boseman, whose career was cut short by cancer in August.
But what hopefully won’t be left out is that the film based on an acclaimed August Wilson play is also the finest work of Boseman’s career and a crystallization of not only the times in which the film is set but the wide array of emotions that bubble to the surface in jazz music and in the musicians who perform.
Set over the course of one afternoon in 1920s Chicago, Black Bottom watches tensions rise during a recording session for blues pioneer Ma Rainey as an ambitious trumpeter, white management and hot, claustrophobic conditions lead to an eruption of hidden truths and inner conflict.
Boseman is a firestorm of energy that bubbles over the surface slowly, captivating audiences from the opening moments and never letting go as Levee, a young musician and composer wanting to form his own jazz band and play more up-tempo music to attract Northern audiences.
The natural charm from his smile serves as a balm to audiences trying to find their way through the somewhat confusing introduction, and its only when Levee tells his bandmates the story of his parents that Black Bottom truly takes shape.
Boseman emotes so dynamically in this one moment, about 30 minutes into the feature, that the whole tone of the film changes on a dime, no longer being about making a record. With the longing and ache in Boseman’s voice and the tremble in his physicality, Levee takes Black Bottom and reveals Wilson’s true vision – a heart-wrenching, thought provoking treatise on race relations during the 1920s that still sears in modern times.
And none of it works without Boseman at the very top of his craft, balancing fragile emotion with a masquerade of bravado to fool not only everyone else but Levee himself.
Viola Davis – who won an Academy Award for her work in Denzel Washington’s 2016 adaptation of Wilson’s Fences – plays the title character with a larger-than-life persona that initially comes across as fake, but in smaller individual moments is revealed to be something much more nuanced and considered.
Where her work truly dazzles in the physicality she brings to Ma, using her body to get what she wants from everyone around her. There’s an imposing force to how Davis twists her hips or thrusts herself forward, implying Ma isn’t to be trifled with. Every movement is considered and electric, with the reverberations of her presence rumbling through the screen.
Black Bottom also boasts terrific work from the rest of its ensemble cast with Colman Domingo as the peacemaking band leader Cutler and Glynn Turman as piano player Toledo serving as standouts.
The film is such a fervent playground for these talented character actors largely because of the remarkable screenplay from Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapting Wilson’s words for the silver screen.
Dialogue gets peppered back and forth across short distances like bullets and the searing monologues delivered by Ma and Levee have an intensity and bite that can only come from an expert playwright like Wilson.
Stage adaptations often suffer from long, drawn-out running times that feel natural in a theater setting but drag on the big screen. Black Bottom, however, flies through a crisp 90-minute running time and Wolfe maintains an energy to the film from a visual perspective that keeps up with the sharp, relentless dialogue.
Cinematographer Tobias A. Schiessler keeps the camera in tight on performers while mixing up the color palette, enhancing the “anything can happen,” jazz improvisational style. At times, Black Bottom shows its stage roots, lingering in tight spaces and emphasizing the dialogue, and yet there’s a grandiose scale to the transitional pieces, moments in between the film’s “acts” that contextualize events and give Black Bottom a larger sense of place.
Black Bottom may well be a major contender for a Best Picture Oscar nomination, but it’s fairly written in stone that Boseman and Davis will both earn nods for their leading performance. The film’s adapted screenplay should earn accolades as well as technical honors for the film’s costuming, production design and Branford Marsalis’s score.
It’s quite possible, in fact, that Boseman could be the first posthumous double nominee with lead actor for Black Bottom and best supporting actor for Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods.
Certain to be near the top of any best of 2020 list, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom serves as the perfect coda on Boseman’s magnetic career and is an absolute must-see for ardent cinephiles on Netflix this awards season.