Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

First, a couple of major positives:

1. The performances in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are incredible. Viola Davis is often regarded for her elegance and raw, emotional power; but she’s also a severely underrated comic performer, which she showcases to full effect here. The late Chadwick Boseman is similarly unbelievable. The level of intensity he brings to the screen is unlike anything I’ve seen from him thus far. It breaks my heart to know that he’ll never hold his well deserved Oscar for this. 

2. August Wilson was a genius. I’m about to come down hard on this film’s brain-dead approach to storytelling, but I want to make it clear that none of my problem are with Wilson himself. The man’s work speaks to so many due to his interest in contemporary Black issues, but equally important to consider in an appreciation of Wilson’s theatre is the relationship between his audience and his performers. These plays are intimate to the point of being painful. That pain is enabled by the physical presence of actors on stage and audiences in the seat, lacking the safety blanket between them. In Wilson’s theatre, you are in the room with the broken characters you’re invested in. It’s hard not to get swept up in the raw, emotional power this kind of storytelling. It’s raw emotion without protection.

And now, my general thoughts on the film: this was a let-down. An unsurprising let-down, but a let-down nonetheless.

Like Fences before it, the filmmakers behind Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are content to simply throw August Wilson’s work up on a screen and have the story speak for itself, without any concessions made for the project to work as a film, rather than a piece of filmed theatre. Very little attention is paid to cinematic language, visual storytelling or anything that could heighten the narrative outside of its intended, theatrical medium. If you’re here for the performances, none of this matters. But there’s no cinematic craft here: no creative cinematography, no editing choices, no changes to the source material, nothing. 

The problem here is obvious: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is merely a sub-optimal way to experience an important work of art. At its best, it’s a novelty piece meant to showcase the talents of Hollywood’s finest performers and grant further awareness to Wilson’s work for folks unfamiliar with it. At its worst, it feels like a cynical cash-grab by its filmmakers, all hoping to win a few Oscars by removing a master from his medium.

I found myself constantly wishing I was experiencing this story on a stage, where it so obviously belonged. I wished I was sitting in the same room as Rainey’s studio band, rather than atop of George C Wilson’s techno crane. I wished I could hear the instruments in the room, rather than simulated in post. I wanted presence but found absence. I wanted life, but this film is mostly dead. 

Perhaps I’m just cynical, but I fail to see what people like about this project beyond the performances.

I would highly recommend checking out Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on the stage, when theatres open up again.

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