Hot Rhythm Records

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Director: George C. Wolfe

Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman , Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Jeremy Shamos, Johnny Coyne, Dusan Brown, Taylour Paige, Joshua Harto 

This film is only available on NETFLIX

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based upon a play by August Wilson and adapted for the screen by actor and writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson and August Wilson and stars Oscar winner Viola Davis (Fences) as the brash and take-no-nonsense Ma Rainey  who arrives in Chicago in 1927 to record a single for her song Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Conceptualized on screen by the director of Nights in Rodanthe and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, George C. Wolfe does a capable job of maintaining the tension in this film as the characters brim with talent, anger and the capacity for violence.

Blues Diva Ma Rainey is confronted by her band members particularly Levee the angry young man who has suffered years of racial abuse and injustice, superbly played by Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther, 21 Bridges) who unfortunately passed away in 2020 due to stomach cancer.

Boseman’s performance is mercurial, brimming with talent and anger, battling to control his emotions in a harsh world filled with segregation, racial hatred and mistrust which characterised American society in the late 1920’s just before the Great Depression happened in October 1929.

Nominated for Best Actor at the 2021 Golden Globes, Chadwick Boseman’s performance has already garnered critical acclaim and if he posthumously gets an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 2021 and wins, he will only be the third actor in the Academy Awards history to win an Oscar after his death, the previous two being Peter Finch for Network in 1977 and Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight in 2009.

August Wilson’s play is a tightly constructed drama all taking place in a recording studio and once again Viola Davis steals the show as the demanding and outrageously talented Blues singer Ma Rainey who originally hailed from Georgia. Ma Rainey’s unconventional lifestyle was way ahead of her time especially her affectionate relationship with back up dancer Dussie Mae, coquettishly played with vibrancy by Taylour Paige last seen in the excellent Detroit crime drama White Boy Rick.

As tensions increase and tempers flare at the Hot Rhythm Records one hot summer’s day in 1927, the recording manager Irvin wonderfully played with complete exasperation by character actor Jeremy Shamos (Bad Education) is intent on getting Ma Rainey’s permission to eventually release the recorded song especially after so many setbacks including Rainey’s young nephew Sylvester played by Dusan Brown, who suffers from a terrible stutter.

The dialogue in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is filled with angst and despair, but if viewers can get past that, it is a fascinating period piece about Chicago in 1927 held together by two fine performances by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom gets a film rating of 7 out of 10 and is recommended viewing for those that enjoyed Fences and enjoy play to screen film adaptations.

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