Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Director: George C. Wolfe
Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos
Genres: Drama, Music
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexual content, and brief violence
Release Date: 11/25/20 (Streaming)
Runtime: 1h 34min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Where to Watch: Netflix
Oscar Nomination(s): Likely–Picture, Actor (Boseman), Actress (Davis), Adapted Screenplay, Costumes, Production Design, Editing; Possible–Director, Supporting Actor (Turman/Domingo)

There was a lot of hype for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and not just because it features Oscar winner Viola Davis (and fellow Rhode Island-er) in the title role, as well as the fact that it’s another adaptation of an August Wilson play produced by Denzel Washington (who co-starred with Davis in Fences). Also, it co-stars the late Chadwick Boseman, who was said to have given an Oscar-worthy performance that would be his last performance ever. And, while it does features outstanding turns from Davis, Boseman, and others, it does feel very play-like and not as cinematic as I’d hoped. 

Sometimes, extreme hype is to blame for being disappointed, although I never loved nor hated Ma Rainey. Rather, I think it succeeds in transporting Wilson’s play to the film but doesn’t add anything special to it, aside from the magnetic performances. I think I would have preferred seeing this story onstage, with the same cast and director (George C. Wolfe). This film, like Fences, has numerous, lengthy monologues that are more suited to the stage than to the screen, and performances that are all fairly big, but also Oscar bait-y. Also, from what I’ve heard, screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson cut out a large chunk of the play (it’s apparently about an hour longer); and, while I usually prefer when films are on the shorter side, this is one instance in which I feel like 94 minutes was not enough time to understand the characters and their motivations. 

I don’t usually mind movies that take place over the course of one day/night, as long as it’s done well and has a noticeable, effective narrative.  Again, here is where Ma Rainey‘s relative brevity is more harmful than helpful, especially considering what happens at the end regarding Boseman’s character (no spoilers). It seems to almost come out of nowhere, and doesn’t fit his personality — or, at least, what we’ve come to know of it throughout the film. There are also some odd directorial choices that don’t quite make sense, although it’s obvious that Wolfe wants to showcase the performances of its two leads. 

And, that’s where this film truly shines. It’s not surprising that Davis absolutely owns the title role, as the confident, controlling singer who wants things done in a very specific way, and she’ll stop at anything to get what she wants. Sure, Davis hams — or rather, as a vegan, I should say, “tofus” — it up, but there’s much more to it than that. Her mannerisms are so precise and fascinating that I wish she’d been in it more; she actually has far less screen time than Boseman, but she’s still a co-lead.

Speaking of Boseman, what’s to say about his performance here that hasn’t already been said? He’s simply magnetic and seemingly giving every ounce of himself into this role — maybe he did this because he knew he was dying (he looks pretty frail here), or because he just always had that in him. We’ve seen glimpses of his acting prowess in Black Panther and some of his earlier roles, and even in his previous film, Da 5 Bloods, but this role gave him the opportunity to do something truly magnificent. He’s currently the favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar, and he wouldn’t be the first to win a posthumous acting Oscar (the last being Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight), and he may also snag a Supporting Actor nomination for Bloods

I also must shout out the supporting cast, who are all great, even though they’re obviously not as showy as Davis and Boseman. I was especially drawn to performances from Glynn Turman and Colman Domingo, who play two bandmates in Ma’s group; they both get moments to shine, although I wish there’d been more of this. So much time is spent on Boseman’s character that I wanted to know more about the others; I imagine this is part of the cut material. 

Regardless of its shortcomings, I still found Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to be entertaining and well-acted — definitely worth a watch.