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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

This film is an adaptation of a play of the same name by August Wilson (who also wrote the play Fences that was adapted to the screen in 2016). The subject is Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), a woman considered by many to be the “Mother of the Blues”, and her band over the course of a studio recording session. The plot centers on her trumpeter, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who is headstrong and wants to play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” his way. I typically find film adaptations of stage plays to be rather hollow; each platform has its strengths that don’t necessarily play well when rendered in the other medium. This one works pretty well because of two blazing performances. Viola Davis embodies Ma Rainey; she looks like her and, from what I read about Ma Rainey, she has her mannerisms and fierceness of a Black artist trying to maintain her integrity in a world run by White managers and producers who are only looking out for the money she brings in. Boseman is wonderful as a young man who is young enough to be at times too idealistic yet old enough to know the depths of racism and how it shapes who he is. His youth and idealism are pitted against the older and more world-wise band members with whom he plays. When he has center stage, Boseman is completely mesmerizing. I think the director could have optimized better the film medium and provided more depth to Ma Rainey, but overall, the film works remarkably well and captures an era that included the great migration that sent many Black people to the Northern cities to escape the punishing effects of Jim Crow. The film captures so much in such a short amount of time. I loved it, and the two central performances both are award-worthy. (2020; 4.5 Stars)

About Gary Burkholder

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