Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is evocative of a time gone but finds relevancy as its story of artistic exploitation and crushed dreams are still pertinent today. The 1920s here has a stylised, dreamlike quality, never feeling real and yet dirtied and broken. The heat and the sweat of the day lingers over every scene, as tensions flare and characters argue. The flowing, moving camerawork hides the stage origin of the work, making for something with real cinematic flourishes. August Wilson was a master playwright and the dialogue he created here on race, religion, and art are all timeless. He found a story that both highlighted the exploitation of black artists by white producers and also showed the power that strongly-willed, talented people can wield. Viola Davis is transformed as the title character and gives an unbelievably confident performance. The late Chadwick Boseman also shines, playing an ambitious young trumpeter in a performance defined by his physicality. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom doesn't for me quite deliver the social complexities and emotional nuances of Fences, but it still has its moments of profound insight. A man's whole future can come to nothing, destroyed in one day, and that has become normalised in a world where many never make it past their struggles and circumstance. This is cinema as a stage for great human ideas and it has much to offer.

2020 Ranked