Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★

“If my daddy known I’d turn out like this, he’d have named me Gabriel.”

This film is based on a play, and that’s apparent because the filmmakers didn’t do a ton here to break it out of those constructs. Most of this movie takes place in two rooms, and in there, the actors do most of the work. When the film leaves those settings, it’s a bit noisy and incoherent, and those scenes almost feel like a different movie. In short, the script and directing here are a bit messy and the plot is weak.

Still, for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom being a not-so-great movie, it still contains some exceptional acting performances that make the viewer forget about a lot of the film’s problems.

Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis engage in an excellent battle of one-ups, as their characters spar over spotlight, credit and a girl. Both of their performances are powerful. And they are the reason this movie is worth watching.

As Ma, Davis is a sweaty diva who refuses to bend for anyone. It is truly her way or the highway, from musical arrangements to Coca-Cola’s. She goes to some extraordinary lengths to find and embody Ma. Boseman’s Levee is cocky, confident, cool and talented, and he’s tired of being a background player, tired of being overlooked and tired of being slighted. At some point, his emotions become too much to control.

The supporting cast — led by Glynn Turman and Taylour Paige — is strong too. And the musical scenes are well executed.

It’s a shame this movie as a whole isn’t better, but Boseman’s final role is incredible and memorable.