Saturday 20 March 2021

Movie Review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)

A drama set in the music world, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom exposes generational rifts and scars carried by Black performers. Superlative lead performances compensate for otherwise limited cinematic joy.

Chicago, 1927. Flamboyant blues star Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), a legend in the South, is in town for a recording session supervised by her nervous manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and money-pinching record company boss Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). Her back-up band includes cocky young trumpeter Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman), who writes music and dreams of creating his own troupe to record more modern, upbeat tunes.

While the band is rehearsing, differences of opinion flare up between the brazen Levee and the other older, more circumspect members, including Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Toledo (Glynn Turman). Ma finally arrives along with her nephew Sylvester and back-up singer/lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and immediately imposes her will on the recording session, further heightening tensions in the studio.

An adaptation of the August Wilson play co-produced by Denzel Washington, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (the title refers to the name of one of her more famous songs) stays close to its stage origins. A colourful prelude is set at an audience show in rural Georgia, but subsequently director George C. Wolfe allows the theatrical milieu to dominate both in setting (two rooms of the recording studio) and performance tones (dominated by showy monologues). Stylistically, the film settles down as not much more than a filmed play.

The subject matter is uneven. Some dialogue exchanges extend into profound observations on the Black experience in America, including Levee revealing the heartrending story of his parents tangling with violent bigots, and Ma expressing frustration that her voice is monetarily revered by the likes of Irwin, while as a person she is ignored.

But too many conversations are repetitive or trivial, the arguments between Levee and the other band members endlessly going around in circles and covering the same topics, his cockiness and shiny new shoes generating the most verbiage. At a running length of just 94 minutes, all the talk means the musical content is surprisingly limited. Frustration builds as the tiresome bickering keeps interrupting or delaying the music, and Ma is relegated to a secondary character, albeit still larger than life.

Despite the surrounding limitations, Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman deliver powerhouse performances. Davis portrays Ma as a force of nature with an unbendable will, refusing to accept grief or excuses from anyone. Boseman adds the exuberance of a man seeking a better future and supremely confident both in his talent and his ability to manipulate the system to his advantage.

Brash but confined, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is bottled-up boldness.

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