Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★★

It’s no impressive discovery to say that Chadwick’s performance is one of the best of the year, no doubt. He succeeds in not only turning in a seasoned dramatic performance, but adds as much cinematic potential to a film that feels relatively like a stage play, which is where most of the film’s criticism arises from. He is seriously as magnetic and vibrant as the jazz music his character breaths and flourishes in, living his own world of freedom and proficiency. He plays someone at war with their own morals yet appears diligent and headstrong on the outside. A maverick, who is not expressional despite his free spirit, but because of it. And so is his entire surrounding band, if to an obviously lesser extent. The stimulating atmosphere encompassing basic locations is all the more brightened thanks to the back-and-forth banter and the diegetic music present on screen. The welcoming breeziness of a recording studio, the electrifying scale of a concert, and even simpler, quieter monologues manage to maintain the same thunderous attitude the musical performances possess. And although there aren’t many, the jazzy tunes and overture is both soothing and vital to the film's success, in my eyes at least. And it is impossible to talk about both the performances and the cast without mentioning Viola Davis, the titular Ma Rainey. Although probably overruled by Chadwick in terms of presence and drama, she is still outstanding. With her extensive makeup and physical appearance, she is not only strangely intimidating (it can’t just be me who’s scared by her in this) but remarkably diverse in tonal conduct. Nothing more to say about her other than she is indubitably worthy of a nomination, which will definitely be coming her way among other accolades.

And I want to mention one thing fairly quickly; my biggest gripe with people who discuss this film is the common misconception that Chadwick would only be winning awards because of his tragic and untimely death last year. Hearing this not only reminds me that a wonderful and gifted artist has unfortunately passed, but brings so much pain to me otherwise. People who say this are clearly only looking at the awards instead of the performance itself. If they were, they’d notice that he gave an enthralling and captivating performance and would not try to directly connect him to awards. I proudly think that he would easily be taking the award even if he was still with us, and him winning after his demise is no different. If anyone wants to say that, I will gladly disregard anything else you have to say for the movie. Awards should never matter whether someone is worthy of praise or not, and in this case it is. That’s just a little side-step to the actual review. Now back to what I was initially saying.

The main criticism targeted towards the film is something I said above when regarding Chadwick’s role; it feels relatively too much like a stage play. With it all taking pretty much in two spaces, the short runtime, and the fact that it is clearly geared towards being an ensemble piece, it can feel like you’re watching something in a Broadway theater rather than a TV screen. And while I understand and even agree with the complications, I ask this; why exactly is that a problem? Adapting from a play is hard, and as someone who couldn’t care less about Broadway or stage play, I thought this movie was fortunate to both positively remark on what they play is but also stay it’s own thing. But again, I’m someone who couldn’t care less about Broadway anyway, so I presume I’m not the one to judge. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a script that, on surface level, seems like it should be put to theater. But George C. Wolfe saw past that, and intended it to be a movie that deserved a feature length honor with mixed in stage elements. And in that way it triumphs. He makes sure this film warrants the feature film length, instead of simply just shooting a Broadway production of the original play. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have been graced with the impeccably fantastic performances from the two leads, and also a key front runner for upcoming award ceremonies. Although not perfect, I think this film has a lot of potential to win people over, especially in its final moments.

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