Movie Review: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Sings When It Focuses on Boseman, Struggles as a Whole
Director: George C. Wolfe
Writer: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts
Synopsis: Tensions rise when trailblazing blues singer Ma Rainey and her band gather at a recording studio in Chicago in 1927.
Before this review begins, it’s important to note how heartbreaking the passing of Chadwick Boseman has been to myself and so many around the world. An actor with such presence, who gave grace and beauty to every performance he put on screen. From playing historical figures to Black Panther, Boseman was on pace to be one of the best actors of his generation. When he signed up to play Levee in George C. Wolfe’s adaption of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I knew this could be another important step in his career by earning the first Oscar nomination of his career. And after seeing the film, there is no doubt he will land that nomination next year. But while he shines in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, everything else you see on screen doesn’t match what Boseman is delivering.
We follow the tensions and infighting between Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and the members of the band (Bosman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts) while they’re recording some of their famous songs. While the title of this story suggests this is Davis’s film, it is clear within the first ten minutes that this is Levee’s story. He is a brass, outspoken young trumpet player who sees nothing but his fame and fortune in his future. Levee is crass to everyone around him, especially to his other band members, thinking his wonderful talent and connections means he is above them musically and as a person. But as see everything play out, behind all the wise-cracking jokes from Levee’s mouth lies the real pain and hardship that he has faced.
Boseman delivers every word of Levee’s life with such personal affection that it almost feels like these events happened to him. It’s the work of a truly great actor whose channeling the pain and anger of his ancestors before him and inserting it into his character. The proclamations of discrimination that Levee informs the audience with are as relevant as they’ve ever been and demonstrates the frustrations of our shameful history of our country. Only Boseman could have given us one of the best performances of the year as well as an elegantly tragic display of human emotion.
If Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was only about Levee, then it would be one of the best films of the year. Instead, we are given the point of view of the other characters that throw off the tempo in which Boseman is playing in. There is literally a scene in the film where the rest of the band is playing at a different pace than him, so Boseman has to teach them how to play the song his way. That’s what it felt like watching the entire picture, Boseman delivering something special while also trying to get everyone else on his level. And while Domingo, Turman, and Potts do their best to get there, it’s Viola Davis who can’t catch up, and that’s not good considering she is the ‘co-lead’ of this project.
Davis, who won her first Oscar a couple of years ago for another August Wilson adaptation in Fences, is completely wasted here. When she first arrives on screen, we see her dominating the screen as a soul-singing diva. It’s what we came to see. Yet, after that scene, the character completely crumbles on her and everyone else’s performances run circles around Davis. She is too over the top, with nothing to really connect to. And though she is billed as a lead actor in this, she is a supporting character in Levee’s story. It’s disappointing on one hand because it would be nice to see Viola Davis in a lead role dominating every scene she is in. On the other hand, it proves the point in the film that Levee’s arrangements and songwriting are the future of music, and Ma’s way might be that of the past, therefore less interesting.
The direction by George C Wolfe is minimal, really getting the essence of a screenplay built off the bones of a stage play. All Wolfe has to do is stand back and let his actors get to work, for better and for worst. A more experienced film director might have been able to elevate the scope of the project beyond what we get here, but it’s not a terribly bad effort. Overall, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom leaves a little to be desired, even though Boseman gives the performance of his career. It’s a shame that the film he is in isn’t as wonderful as he, but with this, he leaves a legacy that will live on just like Leeve’s soul.