2020 was a difficult year all around but August brought with it a big blow to the world of cinema when it was announced that Chadwick Boseman had died. The actor had been secretly battling cancer for years and, on August 28th 2020, he died at his home aged 43. I know, in the age of social media, there’s always a huge outpouring of grief when a famous person dies but this felt slightly different. Boseman was a magnificent actor and was a big part of Black representation in the film industry. He had played some key figures in Black history and, as Black Panther, had proudly brought diversity to the MCU. Losing him so young was a shock and so many people felt it. Boseman’s talent will never be forgotten and he has justly been awarded with posthumous nominations for his work n Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It’s a this time of year that I’d usually be trying to catch up on all of the films with all of the likely Oscar nominated films but I’m all out of sorts thanks to Covid. That wasn’t going to stop me watching this. I had high hopes for this film.
When you adapt a play for the big screen, I guess that people look for different things. Some people want the new format to expand on the source material and do something bigger. Other people, like me, want the film to try and replicate the feeling you’d get watching it on stage. I personally think this is the best way to do it. After all, the play was written to be seen in an more intimate setting with restrictions on scope and characters. Why not play to its strengths? And it gives people the chance to experience it as the writer first intended. I’ve not seen Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on stage and, ideally, a film production would allow me to feel as though I was. I don’t need big glitzy sets, extra subplots, and more action. I just want it to feel as self-contained as it would on stage.
So, does Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom achieve that? I’d say it comes pretty close. The story is mostly restricted to a couple of rooms in a music studio and the cast of characters is fairly short. The camera stays pretty close for the most part and it manages to capture the tension between the actors. The Netflix adaptation does a pretty good job of making it feel like a play but adds enough to bring it to light on screen. Of course, it helps that the cast is headed up by two dynamite performances. Ma Rainey, the mother of Jazz, is played by the ever amazing Viola Davis. Chadwick Boseman is the trumpet player in her band who dreams of bigger and better things. The two actors are electric.
Something that needed to happen considering how limited the story is. I’ll admit, in terms of plot, this film doesn’t have a lot going for it. We find ourselves in Chicago in 1927 inside a hot recording studio. Music producer Mel Sturdyvant and Ma’s agent, Irvin, are waiting for the star to turn up. In the eyes of these white men, she has something of an attitude problem and won’t toe the line. So, it doesn’t bode well that she’s an hour late. The rest of her band arrive and start to rehearse. The band leader, Cutler, tries to keep them on track while Levee Green, the trumpet player, wants to get his own way. The tension is already mounting between the boys before Ma Rainey arrives but it quickly reaches boiling points when the recording starts. The film is an intimate portrait of a legendary blues singer, a celebration of Black culture, and a study of race relations in America.
I admit that maybe the film doesn’t quite do the story justice and there would be room to build the tension a bit more. It’s a very simple premise but it could have been elevated with a bit of refining. There are some moments that aren’t played for all they could be and end up giving the scene a slightly different tone. However, it does an interesting job of bringing to light the ideas of race that are central to this story. Watch in wonder as Boseman’s Levee shares a story from his youth that explains his attitude towards the white music producer. It’s intense and shows exactly why there’s so much praise for his performance. Boseman brings an amazing energy to the role. He can’t sit still and his frenetic energy really brings the character to life. It is a great contrast to Davis’ more composed and stately Ma Rainey. The two don’t actually share much screen time but, when they do, it’s amazing.
This film will be talked about a lot more after Boseman’s death than it possibly would have had the star still been alive. It’s not that it wouldn’t have received its fair share of praise but it’s made more a splash by being the actor’s final film. If this means more people will actually see it then I’m glad. This film isn’t perfect because, let’s face it, no film adaptation of a play will ever quite live up. You can’t easily recreate the feeling of watching actors perform in front of a live audience. You can replicate that more intimate feeling or the smaller scale of a stage production. What this play does, however, is showcase the talents of its two leads and give some insight into an important figure in Black history. It also offers the perfect legacy for one of the most talented men to appear on screen. If this is how people remember Chadwick Boseman, then it’s no bad thing.
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