Review by Matt Conway
Since swinging onto the big screen with the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, Chadwick Boseman exhibited a rare presence onscreen, utilizing his abilities to tell vital stories that still hold significance today (Black Panther left a sizable mark on the superhero genre). His final acting credit Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom highlights his commanding ability in full-force, often carrying a film that can’t quite live up to it’s potential.
Set in 1920’s Chicago (and based on an August Wilson play), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows a chaotic recording session of Ma Rainey’s band. As a forceful talent, Rainey (Viola Davis) looks to dictate music in her image, whereas her younger horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) wants to reinvent their old-timey sound. Tensions boil as the band comes face-to-face with their deep-seated discontentment towards the broken system they face.
There’s a considerable amount of Oscar buzz surrounding Boseman’s final performance, with his effort thankfully displaying the renowned actor’s best qualities. As Levee, Boseman grabs the screen with an alluring, smooth-talking disposition, a charming veneer that soon morphs into something far more sinister. Once the character’s frustration boils to a point of mania, Boseman utilizes his once affable energy to aptly represent an unhinged spiral. Levee’s troubling journey is thankfully balanced with an impactful empathetic streak that humanizes his descent. The character stands as a victim of unjust racial conditions, damaged by years of mistreatment and disillusioned by his dreams of success in an unfair playing field. It’s a heartbreaking turn from Boseman, with his role performing the heavy-lifting for the film’s thinly-developed thesis.
Ma Rainey operates at its best when basking in its source material’s free-flowing nature. Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay keeps Wilson’s text mostly intact, allowing the tight-knit narrative to be told through a balance of lively conversations and hard-hitting emotional beats. Director George C. Wolfe compliments the material’s strengths with his precise framing, employing a cinematic streak without overwhelming the film’s low-key approach. These elements make a great canvas for the well-rounded cast to shine, with Viola Davis, Colman Domingo, and Glynn Turman all offering strong performance work (Davis grabs the screen as the boisterous Ma Rainey).
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom boasts strong qualities, yet the film lacks a definitive center to ground its strengths. Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay brushes past the material’s meaty ruminations, briefly touching upon the commodification of black culture while opting for overly-simplistic sentiments. The film gets so caught up in its busy dialogue-driven sequences that the purpose behind them can often feel quite thin (the final shot is asked to do much of the heavy lifting). Wolfe’s direction also displays clear limitations. His traditionalist visceral form works serviceably, but the lack of auteurship feels apparent during the film’s marquee moments.
Does Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom convey the full extent of its material? Not quite, but the assured cast elevates this into a semi-compelling chamber piece [B-].