In 1920s Chicago, legendary "Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), is due to record some of her most beloved songs. She is late to the recording session and tensions have already started to rise between the band of musicians accompanying Ma. The youthful, ambitious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) is particularly getting on everyone's nerves.
'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' will forever carry the legacy of being Chadwick Boseman's final film. The 'Black Panther' star tragically passed away at the age of 43 earlier this year, having battled colon cancer. In his performance as Levee, Boseman has delivered a magnificent swansong, reminding us of the talent we have lost.
Those who have seen 'Fences' starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (again) will find a familiar tone in 'Ma Rainey's'. Both hail from the same writer, playwright August Wilson. Racial tensions emerge between Ma and her white manager and producer; but so too do class tensions, and youth versus age and experience. It's the kind of film you can pore over as to its meaning and themes; or just sit back and chill to, as you enjoy the magnificent music.
Wilson's dialogue is electric with the rising pressure of the scenes matching the intense heat of the day. On stage, the raw energy of their performances is aesthetically marked by faces of concentration, dripping with sweat, as the musicians commit body and soul to their art. The production design too immerses you wholly in the era. This is the 1920s that productions like 'The Great Gatsby' neglected.
Davis in the titular role has a commanding presence, creating such a force with the slightest tonal changes in her voice or piercing looks. Boseman is terrific as the stubborn and obnoxious Levee, who too is fighting for a piece of the pie. He's cheeky and entertaining to watch, though you're sure the character would be a nuisance to work with. More than willing to push some buttons in the pursuit of his dreams, his impassioned nature comes through too when he gives an emotional speech about what happened to his family.
The brilliant ensemble, which includes Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts, also exchange stories of their experiences of racism and tragedy; and matters do turn tragic, as the ambience and external forces becomes overwhelming for its players. 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' is a sad and thought-provoking endeavor, displaying the amazing talent of all involved.
'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' streams on Netflix from Friday, December 18.