George C.Wolfe’s film based on August Wilson’s play is filled with raw passion and anger that is compelling to watch.
Featuring two dynamic central performances from Viola Davis as the immensely popular Blues singer Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as the overconfident and ambitious Levee Green, this film adaptation of the play is rich in emotion and powerfully intense from start to finish.
The story focuses Ma Rainey who has been contracted by two producers to make a recording of her popular songs. But there are complications along the way with trumpeter Levee having written his own compositions and wanting his version of the title track to be performed on the record. What slowly emerges is a story about power, control over artistic work as well as how deeply ingrained racism goes.
Directed with great artistic flair that reflects the era and the unfolding drama well, George C. Wolfe’s film beautifully ramps up the tension between all of the key characters with great sharpness. This is even shown early on as Levee goads the other members of the band about his future thanks to the focus of Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay, the tension ebbs and flows in a way that keeps the audience on edge.
The film is consistently raw and filled with emotion, enhanced further by the strength of the performances from all of the cast – put in particular its two central characters. Chadwick Boseman, in what was sadly his final role before he passed away last year, is utterly compelling to watch as he highlights the different elements of his character. Levee is an ambitious, arrogant personality on the surface – but underneath lies a character who will do whatever it takes to escape his past and make something of himself despite the horrific prejudice against black people at that time. Boseman completely absorbs himself into the role with great energy and presence – it would have been great to have been able to watch him perform the role live on stage. A particular standout moment is when he talks about how his father was lynched after attempting to confront the white men trying to rape his mother – chilling and understated it is a powerful moment perfectly delivered.
Meanwhile Viola Davis delivers an equally powerful performance as Ma – determined to have things her own way to protect her voice and music she is a real force to be reckoned with. Every speech that she delivers, every mannerism and look is well calculated to capture just what a force of nature this character is. It is a fierce performance that is compelling to witness. But equally interestingly, both performances line up nicely with each other – and it is possible to make the argument that Ma and Levee despite their differences do have things in common – both wanting to protect their music and their future in different ways perhaps but ultimately having to fight the same battle for control.
There is a real sense of understated theatricality about the whole film, particularly when the band (formed of the excellent support of Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts) are all talking and rehearsing among themselves that make it feel like an intimate live performance. There are plenty of moments which feel deeply philosophical and meaningful to keep the audience’s attention.
Understated but filled with drama, this is a powerful adaptation of a compelling play with two mesmerising performances at the centre of it.
By Emma Clarendon
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available to watch on Netflix now.