Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½

Would make a solid pairing with One Night in Miami, another stage adaptation that centers a lot of fascinating conversations around the concept of being a black performer in a country, and in an industry, dominated by white people, and the internal conflicts that come from finding that balance between selling your soul to them in order to get ahead yourself versus standing your ground while they’ve got their heel on your neck. Some of the more overarching writing is clunky here, mostly from a structural sense. It makes sense that Ma (Viola Davis) feels like she exists in a world of her own, as she does, but it also feels like she’s in a different film than the men are, and George C. Wolfe isn’t able to integrate these two concepts fluidly enough.

Those individual pieces are compelling. Davis is a force of nature, a diva who owns her position, demands what she feels she deserves, and refuses to take any shit otherwise. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more engaged watching someone drink a Coca-Cola in a movie. I found myself wishing we had been given more time with her, as something about our exploration of her character felt a little unfulfilled, although that’s no fault of Davis, who delivers one of her best performances.

The stronger aspect of the film, however, is downstairs in the dingy basement room with her accompanying quartet. Wolfe has assembled undoubtedly one of the finest ensembles of the year here. Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts are such a great trio of veterans, and they provide this excellent counterpoint to Chadwick Boseman’s character. These guys have been around, they know the music business, they know the country they’re in, and they know what station they’ve been told theirs is in this life. They’ve resigned themselves to the life they’re living, and they’re content with it, despite the injustices they face. They’ve seen enough to know what can happen when you put up too much of a fight.

What you leave out of a story is just as important as what you put into it, and there’s a moment here that really stuck with me. When the music studio’s producer puts them into this decrepit old room downstairs that looks like you’re going to get an infection just from stepping foot into it, you normally would expect to see the men put up this big showy fight. We’ve all seen the theatrical scene of them arguing about the disgrace of them being placed in a room like that, which is exactly what it is, a disgrace. Here, however, there’s no fight. They’re used to it, and it’s depressing to watch them enter that room as if they’ve entered rooms like this a million times. Maybe they used to have the energy to fight against that, but they don’t anymore. It speaks to their worldview, and it’s a worldview that is not shared by Boseman’s Levee, an absolute barnstormer of a character who comes in like a tidal wave and wreaks havoc from start to finish.

This is a guy with ambition, with drive, with guts and gusto, and he owns every room he’s in, whether everyone else in it likes it or not. Losing Boseman this year was an absolute tragedy for the entire world, and seeing his final performance here is one last reminder of what a unique, exciting talent he has been since he first broke out with his performance as Jackie Robinson in 42 seven years ago. Boseman was the kind of actor who commanded the screen every time he appeared on it. He was a rarity in this day and age, an actor who demanded your attention, the utter definition of screen presence.

It’s no hyperbole or bias from his untimely passing to say that this is the finest performance of his career. His Levee is such a combustible mixture of oppression, rage, trauma, excitement, optimism, and resilience. You never know what to expect from him next, and Boseman draws you in to make sure you hear every word that comes out of his mouth. He’s got several scenes that stand toe to toe with the best pieces of acting we’ve seen in the last decade at least. The movie overall may have some dents in its armor, from the incomplete feeling of its examination of Ma to the inevitable limitations that come from being indebted to its stage roots, but Boseman’s performance is something that everyone needs to see, and I still think the film is better than your usual awards movie that is all about the performances.

Added to 2020 ranked

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