Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians await trailblazing performer, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Academy Award winner Viola Davis). Late to the session, the fearless, fiery Ma engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music. As the band waits in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious cornet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) — who has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend and is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry — spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives.
Watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was an oddly fulfilling experience for me. It’s a relatively simplistic movie in terms of both its concept as well as execution, but it’s still energetic and relentlessly entertaining. But on top of all of that, it was incredibly comforting yet sad to watch Chadwick Boseman in his final film role as Levee Green. It was comforting because Boseman delivers the best performance of his entire career as Levee, but it was sad knowing that this would be the last time I would ever watch a new movie with Boseman in it.
It’s almost like Boseman knew that he wouldn’t be able to make too many more movies during the filming of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, because he holds absolutely nothing back with his performance here. He is in complete control of the room every time he is on screen which is really saying something seeing as how she shares the screen with Viola Davis and Glynn Turman just to name a few of the excellent actors involved with this project.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom works best when it shows the dynamic and the conversations between the band members that work for Ma Rainey. They definitely disagree on a lot of things and often spend their time arguing with one another while in the break room before heading out to record a new song with Ma, but at the end of the day, they love each other. They like being in each other’s presence even when things get a bit out of control.
It would have been nice if the movie spent some more time focusing on the individual characters of the band a little bit more because the film almost entirely focuses on the lives of Ma Rainey and Levee Green. The other members of the band get somewhat pushed to the side which was a bit confusing seeing as how this is a movie about Ma Rainey and her band, and the only characters that feel fully realized are Ma and Levee.
But put all your worries to the side because Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a wonderfully entertaining film that features some truly top-notch performances from Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis. Davis’ character is incredibly fun and exciting to watch because she is a woman that essentially will not let anybody push her around. The cast that made up this film is miraculous. It’s as close to a perfect send-off to Boseman’s career as one could hope for.
Overall Grade: A-
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content, and brief violence
Directed by: George C. Wolfe
Distributed by: Netflix
Release Date: November 25, 2020
Running Time: 94 minutes