Released: 18th December
Seen: 20th December
In this, the year of perpetual pain and suffering, one of the moments that shocked the world was the passing of actor Chadwick Boseman. Probably best known for his work as the Black Panther, Chadwick had an amazing career playing legends from Jackie Robinson to Thurgood Marshall to James Brown and it seemed like he was destined to take over the world as an actor before we lost him far too young. When this happens to an actor in their prime, it’s always curious to know what the last film released featuring that actor and how would such a film reflect upon their legacy… in Chadwick Boseman’s case? Don’t be surprised in a few months when we hear his name read among a list of Oscar nominees.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, takes place in the 1920’s during a recording session for Ma Rainey’s (Viola Davis) new album. Her band is there early to rehearse, all except the ambitious Levee (Chadwick Boseman) who has dreams of starting his own band and playing his own music, something he reminds the other band members of at every opportunity. Throughout the recording session the band and Ma Rainey and her band will have to confront issues of being black performers in a white man’s recording studio, stories of racism from their past and the general infighting that escalates to incredible heights. By the end of the night, who knows if there’ll even be a band left let alone an album.
Confined almost entirely to the studio and a rehearsal space, you can feel this film’s stage origins in every single frame but that honestly ends up working to the film’s advantage. There’s no need for showing off with camera angles or sweeping shots because the power of this piece comes from seeing these people in cramped conditions just barely tolerating each other in order to get a record made. It adds to the claustrophobia that goes throughout the piece, intensifying the tension perfectly… tension that is provided by the pitch perfect performances.
When I say Boseman is getting an Oscar nom for this, I mean I will be forced to burn things if he doesn’t because the man delivers a performance that demands you pay attention. When he is screaming a monologue at God, you feel bad that God did something to piss this man off. When he’s telling a story from his childhood you can feel every ounce of pain buried deep in this character. He makes Levee into a character you can’t help but sympathise with even at his worst moments, every single second he’s on screen is a masterclass in how to give a performance that captures the audience’s attention.
Viola Davis also shows why she is the icon that she is, delivering a compelling performance as Ma Rainey. She storms into the film like a hurricane, putting fear into the hearts of mortal men when she yells and making you lean close in pure rapture when she’s quiet. It’s hard to describe her performance as anything other than incredible, she spends the entire film reminding everyone that she has all the power… right until she puts her voice onto a vinyl record and then those in power are done with her and it’s amazing watching her take advantage of the power dynamic while she can.
The film feels like a powerplay between Ma Rainey and Levee even though they share maybe three scenes in total, but that could also just be because the two leads are among the best actors in the modern age delivering some of the best performances of their career. They’re aided by a fantastic supporting cast who knows when to push and when to step back and just let Viola or Chadwick go for broke, which they often get a chance to with this film’s absolutely incredible script that often gives its actors some of the best monologues you will hear… seriously, Levee’s recitation of what happened to his father will have you sitting there with your jaw on the floor
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an incredible film, led by performances that define careers. This film would be important just based on it being the final performance of a beloved actor, but to throw on top of that some of the best acting that every actor involved has ever done and a script so tight and powerful that it demands your full attention is just something else. We were pretty damn lucky to have Chadwick Boseman share his gifts with us and while it’s a shame that we will never see him again, this is him going out on the highest of highs.