Summary: The uncontrollable “Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey holds a recording session.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a short, simple play by August Wilson about the blues recording artist undergoing a recording session with a band who doesn’t get along and a set of White managers. I don’t have too much prior background knowledge on this other than it’s part of Denzel Washington’s plan to bring 10 August Wilson plays to the big screen (hooray for accessibility!) and its overarching commentary about the commodification and subsequent monetization of Black talent. While some of it is a bit outdated due to the sheer amount of technology and accessibility we have to the arts today, the general principle still stands- many artists or color are deemed valuable only because they can be turned into a product; and that is only decided by some White Dude who doesn’t really understand who the Art is for in the first place or why it exists.
This provides a lot of great talking points for dialogue, though the movie does drag in some places. The absolutely stellar cast is almost able to overcome that, but falls slightly short. Specifically, there’s an intentional repetition in the dialogue that probably has a different effect in a live performance. It probably makes the tension a bit more palpable and tangible, whereas on film it’s more redundant. This does not take away from the brilliance in the performances- Davis has no bad scenes and the late, great Chadwick Boseman really does shine here. Even though this is named for Ma Rainey, Bosemen does come off as the star here. It’s a perfect final performance and we get to see how exceptional he was. He sings, he dances, he cries, he laughs. If he gets a few nominations and awards for this, I don’t think anyone would argue. And I’m sure I’m not the first one saying this: if Renee Zellweger can win an Oscar for Judy, there is no way in hell Viola Davis should be denied an Oscar for this movie. There’s a fine line between impersonation and really living the character and Davis is so seamless in her performance.