Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★½

Original Title: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Year of Release: 2020
Genres: Historical Drama; Music
Director: George C. Wolfe
Writer: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Main Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown

I will forever remain of the opinion that a great performance does not automatically make a great movie. I know plenty of people who put the actors' crafts on a pedestal, where a weak performer can ruin their enjoyment, while a great one can elevate it to insane heights of pleasure. Well, I ain't like that. To me, a movie is everything, from the script and performances, to the camerawork, editing, and especially direction. The way all of those things came together, to tell a story, to give audiences something, it's something I truly cherish when doing really right.

This long-winded introduction is to say that I didn't like Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. One thing I dislike more than biopics are adaptations of theatre plays that do not try even in the slightest to make something interesting and cinematic out of the material. This is one such film. From a purely technical standpoint, this is dull and lifeless, with standard cinematography, really ugly digital zoom-ins, choppy editing, and a complete disinterest in trying to inject life through audio and visuals.

What I really couldn't really get behind was the point of the film: what is it? Outside of showing a recording session gone wrong of Ma Rainey and her band, and doing yet another simple examination of racism against black people in the US and how white people appropriated their culture for their amusement, what was the point of this? It is not like these topics are not important, because they are, but there are many other films and shows that tackle those same issues in a much more powerful, compelling, and engaging way (something that this film was not).

Thankfully, the saving grace of the film is the cast, especially Chadwick Boseman. In any other year, this film would have come and gone, with people championing his performance as the best part of it (getting flashbacks of Get On Up). Sadly, his untimely demise has made this the last time we will ever see him in a new release, which puts a lot of pressure on this being a quality swan song. And boy, he really does make this film watchable and not a complete cheap slog! He is charismatic, energetic, charming, vulnerable, magnetic every second he is on screen (which is even more than Davis, who is the title character). I personally much preferred his more subdued and smaller performance in Da 5 Bloods, which was felt throughout the entire film and that deeply resonated with me (I still think about him in that film some days), but this is easily the most showy turn that will get awards-lovers hailing him as the (highly likely) shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor come award season.

But, as I said, one great performance (the rest of the cast is REALLY good, but not that memorable, even Davis) does not make a great film, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is painfully average and lazy in the way it is put together. It would make for a fascinating double-feature with Regina King's One Night in Miami, for adaptations of stage plays that really do not take advantage at all of the cinematic medium, slavishly adhering to the theatrical nature of the script, and playing it incredibly safe.

I would love to see a Spike Lee, Steve McQueen, or Damien Chazelle direct something like this, adding some much needed energy and style, cause otherwise all the good intentions behind these stories ends up being for naught. If you are here only for the performances, you are bound to enjoy or even love this, but I cannot excuse just how weak everything surrounding them was.

Story: 5
Directing: 5
Cinematography: 6.5
Acting: 8
Sound: 7.5
Visual Effects:


Violence & Gore: 6
Sex & Nudity: 4.5
Drugs & Profanity: 3
Intensity & Horror: 3

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