The tragic death of actor Chadwick Boseman took everyone by surprise this past summer, but he gave the world one last powerhouse performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Based on a classic August Wilson play, “Black Bottom” is an actor’s showcase and is likely to earn some best acting nominations in whatever form the Oscars take next year. Along with Boseman, the likes of Viola Davis and Glynn Turman also give strong performances.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is available now on Netflix. And the title refers to a song, so get your mind out of the gutter.
This is a fictionalized story about blues legend Ma Rainey in 1927 Chicago, where she and her band settle into a white-owned recording studio to put down a new album. Tensions flare and heads butt as Rainey digs her heels into her diva behavior, and trumpet player Levee repeatedly tries to insist he’s better than everyone else around him.
I’ve never seen the original play this film is based on, but I think it’s safe to say both the play and the movie strike a strong message about the Black American Dream. I’m in no position to comment on such a thing, but “Black Bottom” provides a sharp critique of the world that even talented and successful Black people faced in America in the 1920s.
Ma Rainey may come off as a diva, but as she explains in the film, it’s all about knowing her worth and fighting for it tooth and nail against the establishment. Davis does a fantastic job bringing this historical figure to life.
On the flip side is Boseman in his final live action performance, playing the wildly emotional Levee. Whereas Ma Rainey is established and knows the system, Levee is fast and loose with whatever he needs to do to try and attain some of her power. Boseman shouts and sings to the heavens — sometimes literally — as he suffers one of the best and worst days of his life.
This is a focused and very emotional movie, built on snappy dialogue, strong character interactions and some deeply emotional foundations — exactly what you’d expect from a movie that was a play first. The actors give it their all in their performances, and that is always a treat.
So if you like strong performances in a strong movie, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a strong choice for movie night.