2021 Oscar Reviews: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed and the nominees are yet to be announced, giving me a chance to get an oxymoronic late jump-start on this year’s anticipated nominees. Today we cover…

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (2020) Chadwick Boseman as Levee. Cr. David Lee/NETFLIX

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

[5 nominations for Best Actor (Chadwich Boseman), Best Actress (Viola Davis), Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling]

The first couple things that came to mind when I was watching this film was the similarities it has to other material. First of all, this was very obviously based on a play. Single location, dialogue and monologue-based, sweeping melodramatic emotions, etc. These were the exact thoughts I had when watching another Oscar buzz film: One Night in Miami. These are two very similar films. Both are, of course, very clearly based on plays. Both are about a group of black men in a room, talking about the role of black cultural leaders in the white world around them. Both feature one of the most successful black musicians of the time (Ma Rainey and Sam Cooke). These similarities are heartbreaking, given that the two plays/films are set over 30 years apart, with an entirely new generation of artists. Ma Rainey occurs in the late 1920’s at the height of Jim Crowe, whereas One Night in Miami occurs in the 1960’s, at the height of the civil rights’ movement. Much had changed in American in that time, and yet, as is all too apparent, many of the themes addressed are still relevant today, almost a century (an entire century!) after Ma Rainey introduced the world to the blues.

Yet, to me the main thought I had was “Man, this movie feel A LOT like Fences.” It turns out there’s a reason for that. Both Fences and Ma Rainey are based on the plays of August Wilson, and are part of a deal by Denzel Washington to bring all 10 of the Pittsburgh Cycle plays to the screen. It is no wonder, then, that both the content and the production felt to similar, even featuring overlaps in cast (superstar Viola Davis costars in both film, portraying two very different characters). Of every play-based movie I can think of having ever seen, Fences was the one that felt the most like it was still being performed onstage. Most attempts at adapting to film seem to feature major efforts in chopping up the scenery and moving the action from place to place in a way that would not be possible on a single set (see: every single Shakespeare movie ever), but Fences didn’t bother with any of that. After a brief establishing scene of our protagonist riding through the streets of Pittsburgh on a garbage truck, we retreat to the safety of a tiny house and a tiny yard and just stay there talking our heads off for the next couple hours. Ma Rainey took the same approach. We have a stunning intro scene of folks running through the woods to line up for one of her shows in Georgia, which transforms via montage into a scene of her hitting the big time on a glitzy Chicago stage. Then we all assemble in a recording studio and never leave. The most that happens is sometimes we’re in a room upstairs, and sometimes we’re in a room downstairs. Once or twice someone maybe steps out into the alley. One Night in Miami did it’s best to chop up the monotony, to limited success. Ma Rainey doesn’t even bother trying. And yet, somehow this streamlined purity seems to work better in my mind. The filmmakers are saying “the source material is strong enough on its own; we don’t need to dress it up.”

Here we come to a similarity to yet another film – this year’s Sound of Metal. Both have a moderate level of Oscar buzz, and both obtained much-deserved Gold Globe nominations for their leading men (with Ma Rainey’s Chadwick Boseman beating out Metal’s Riz Ahmed). Both films are also about musicians, and yet feature virtually no music! To me, in both films this is a missed opportunity. I dunno- maybe in both cases this is done very much on purpose to make the audience feel the frustration of the characters. If that’s the case, then yeah, kudos, job well done, mission accomplished, etc. On the other hand… GAH! I JUST WANT SOME MUSIC IN MY MUSIC -THEMED MOVIES!

Okay, that’s enough of talking about other movies. Let’s focus on what Ma Rainey does well all on its own. The most glaringly obvious shining star in this film is Boseman, in what was of course his final role. He was incredible as the super arrogant horn player Levee, whose ambition and optimism clashes with the worn-down resignation of his older more experienced bandmates. Levee is over the top, and you want to give him a good shaking. Partially it’s because, frankly, he’s just plain irritating. But also because we jaded knowers of history know exactly where things are going for this naïve optimist, and we want to save him further pain. Levee’s exuberance is covering up a deeply troubled and scarred little boy, and you can feel this petrified kid struggling to break free from within this facede of bravado. It’s a very tough role to pull off, especially considering how melodramatically it is presented in the script, and yet Boseman was absolutely flawless. This character is so different from Boseman’s most famous role in Black Panther that I had to go check the cast list to make sure I’d gotten this right. So kudos to him.

Boseman was incredible, but we can’t dismiss the rest of the cast, which was 100% perfect. From Davis’ confident IDGAF turn as Ma, to the wise old band played by Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and Glynn Turman, to the opportunistic and troublingly promiscuous Dussie played by Taylour Paige, down to the sniveling white producers (Jeremy Shamos and Jonathan Coyne) and the stuttering nephew (Dusan Brown). Everyone was great, and breathed believability and realism into a script that, frankly, at times achingly unrealistic. Without such strong showings from ever single cast member, this film would have floundered.

I would be shocked if Boseman wasn’t nominated for his role, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Viola or Domingo were nominated as well. As for other categories? I dunno. Though nicely shot and with movement that felt less frustrating than One Night in Miami, I think it may still be a bit too stiff to warrant any other nods, particularly best picture. But who knows? We’ll just have to wait and see.


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