Blake Van Poucke’s review published on Letterboxd:
Adapted from the stage to the screen, shown in the claustrophobic setting and staging, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a somber and impactful piece for several reasons - first, it unearths a highly overlooked and trailblazing entertainer in Ma Rainey (The mother of the Blues) and the brilliant, talented and distinctive person she was. And second is because of the heartbreaking loss of Chadwick Boseman to Colon cancer, giving us one last charismatic and powerful performance to remember him by. It's a sobering reminder that life is fleeting and to cherish every single opportunity presented like Boseman did in his career. It's one role I won't soon forget.
Furthermore, Viola Davis melts away, and Ma Rainey emerges. It's an incredibly transformative performance, both in the aesthetic resemblance with Davis adding weight for the role and the crooked gold teeth with the biting nature of Ma Rainey's fearless, no-nonsense personality that Davis captures beautifully. She eats up every single second of screen time, truly demanding your attention, and it's hard to take your eyes off her. It's one of the best performances of the year and her masterful career. Only a handful of scenes as satisfying as Ma Rainey demanding her Coke before singing one single lyric. The flipping power dynamics were extraordinary and told a poignant, necessary story of understanding one's worth.
However, the thematic elements in the script are vital with the leads but severely lacking with the background characters. It feels like an acting vehicle for Boseman and Davis, with little attention spread out elsewhere. They are placed in a scene as the audience's suggested reaction to the two larger performances and don't feel entirely real. It also leads to a somewhat disjointed ending that didn't express the themes in a way that made cohesive sense and blindsides you.
So overall, it's a film I'll remember for years to come for the two leads and it being a beloved Hollywood actor's last film, which mainly overshadow the filmmaking flaws. It's essentially a two-person play with other characters written in only to keep the plot moving. Even if it's not a personal favorite of mine, I was floored by Davis and think it's career-best work from her. Rest in peace to Boseman, and extremely thankful he gave us something so powerful and poignant to remember him by.