Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Review: One of the Best Netflix Films This Year
Not just tootin’ its own horn. Mhm, yup. Please don’t leave.
I imagine that a lot of people–myself included–will gravitate towards Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom because it is the final performance of Chadwick Boseman, who was unexpectedly taken from us a few months ago. That’s not to say that there aren’t other reasons to be interested in it, but it’s hard to deny that there’s a gravitas to it, in part, because we know this is what Boseman has left us.
So we pay respects to the man by starting there. It always feels a little dirty to announce someone’s ultimate performance as their decisive one, mainly because it can reek of dishonesty. We are sentimental and empathetic beings, so the urge to award someone something in light of their death is a strong one. It makes me a bit reluctant to do so on occasion, but we need to call a spade a spade on this one: Boseman left us with one of the very best displays of acting that I’ve seen in 2020.
He stars as Levee, a cocky trumpeter enlisted to help Ma Rainey record. Levee is talented and wants to branch off and form his own band, so in between banter with his fellow musicians and rehearsing, he is also writing. Boseman was playing baseball here because he hit a home run. A grand slam. He covered all the bases. Why I choose to use baseball terminology instead of musical examples I’ll never know, but here we are.
Seriously though, Boseman lit up the screen. He showcased a rambunctious and ambitious attitude with undeniable swagger, being both charming and a little annoying. Levee was smart, but quick to anger, causing slight riffs on occasion between himself and the others. He was the cause of both laughter and tension, and while we can give a ton of credit to the writing (and we will in a bit), it’s perfectly acceptable to say that this is Boseman’s best performance.
It’s good you say that because you were about to get this trumpet upside ya head.
Opposite to him is a group of recognizable actors that all bring their A-game. It’s an acting tour de force across the board, from the sound engineers that have to right the chaos to the band members. Viola Davis, who plays Ma Rainey, is just off being her usual amazing self like it’s no big deal. She embodies being a strong woman but when her vulnerability bubbles to the surface it’s not a moment of weakness; it’s of strength. Every single line she delivers is believable because Davis is so genuine it’s impossible not to believe her.
If Boseman wasn’t in this, she would definitely be the standout. It’s a fortunate problem to have because not only does Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom contain one of the best male performances of the year, but it also has one of the best female ones as well. This being a chamber film, the role of actors is crucial.
With less focus being on how the film looks–it still looks great, but it’s hardly worth discussing–then the quality of the script needs to be of the highest standard. And it is, it really is. Fantastic performers can enliven a dead script to some degree, but you can’t reach impressive heights with terrible dialogue.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom manages to be unpredictable in tone. What starts as a group of people converging on a spot with a singular goal–to record songs–runs a gauntlet of emotions. There were some legitimate jokes that organically fell into place, but when it came time to uncover the emotional scars those rang just as true. It was a real joy watching, regardless of who was involved. It didn’t matter, and even though it’s a small cast, it’s still a feat to be able to make every interaction compelling.
The best comparison that continually bubbled in my thick skull was 12 Angry Men, the 1957 Sidney Lumet classic about a bunch of men arguing. I just did the film a huge disservice in how I summarized it but you come here for my crap. It’s not that this reached the same level as 12 Angry Men, but that it even pops into my head in a favourable manner is worth mentioning.
I read what you say below and I’m about to go get that trumpet from Levee.
My only real gripe is that the drama builds and when it gets to the most climactic scene it is a little lifeless. The impact of what happens doesn’t need to be overstated but it was still a huge event that lacked the punch required. At that moment a crack appeared, and even though everybody involved continued to give their all, it was the only time that the writing let it down. Where everything else was able to breathe and unfold naturally, this was cut off at the knees.
Flicks adapted from plays in this way will always be a little contentious. Much like the Denzel Washington directed/produced film Fences–mentioned here because he had a hand in producing this as well–from a few years ago, the mileage will vary depending on how much emphasis you put on the people talking.
A minimalist setting and little movement among the characters isn’t for everybody and that’s fine. When done poorly it can manifest the most tedious of tedium. But to me it’s simple: did I get lost in these characters to the point that I forgot I was watching a movie? If the answer is yes then the flick succeeds. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a resounding yes.
Since Denzel Washington brought Fences to the big screen and had a hand in producing this as well, this guy is ready for the Denzel Washington Play Cinematic Universe.
THAT'S ENOUGH, GET TO THE SCORE
STARTED AT THE BOTTOM
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom beautifully demonstrates what can be done with a chamber film while doing justice to the legendary Ma Rainey. Fueled by clever writing and insanely good performances across the board, this is one of the very best films Netflix has released this year. Doesn’t really have much in the way of Ma Rainey bottom, though. There is a clothed butt at one point but I should probably end this here before I get creepy. Some might say it’s too late.