Austin Burke’s review published on Letterboxd:
In Chicago, 1927 during a recording session, tensions are rising between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player, and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable "Mother of the Blues". This film is based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson's play. Translating a play to the big screen can often be tough thing to pull off, and while this film absolutely pulls it off, the biggest criticism comes with the execution feeling a bit less cinematic than I had hoped for. It is contained, subtle, and all of the things you want to see in a good character study, but it doesn’t quite nail the overall impact of what the story could have given us. That being said, the performances themselves (more than) nail it.
It features two of the best performances of the entire year, as both leads steal the show. Chadwick could get a posthumous Oscar, and it would be well deserved. He is so raw here, and his story is heartbreaking. We spend the first half of the film trying to figure him out; Levee is confident in his abilities, headstrong, and driven to find success. As we progress, we see his character begin to get stripped of everything on an emotional level. His many conversations with the band lead him to anger, as he begins to realize that life will not be as kind to him as it has been to Ma. Viola is the highlight of the film as Ma Rainey, and she gives the definition of a powerhouse performance.
Viola’s ability to breathe life into a scene is astounding, and her character is larger than life. She has a right to be confident, but she goes about it in a very different way. She knows how to get what she wants, but even she realizes that those around her are only in this because she is so talented. These producers are using her to get what they want. The story progresses, and we learn more of the “why” than I expected. The third act features a handful of emotional beats that will blow you away, and these moments make a few of the prior inconsistencies worth it. The music is excellent, the supporting cast is just as great, and the Director handled this in an authentic way. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an excellent film on Netflix, and I expect it to be in the conversation come Oscar season.
🔜Pieces of a Woman