Movie #34 2021: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Movies adapted from plays seem like all the rage right now, don’t they? To be fair, when they’re as good as One Night In Miami…, who am I to complain?

Last year, another movie adapted from a play hit Netflix: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. From the words of August Wilson (who also wrote Fences, which was then adapted into a film directed and produced by Denzel Washington), this is the (semi) true story of the real life professional blues singer, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Rainey was one of the first prominent African American singers to record her songs for public release in 1920s America, and this is where we find herself in the film. Ma and her band gather in 1927 at a recording studio in Chicago, and as Ma was notoriously difficult to work with – and possibly the first real ‘diva’ of music – tensions begin to rise when they attempt to record some of Ma’s best songs. Some may say that Ma was ‘difficult to work with’, whereas Viola Davis (who plays Ma) would describe her as simply someone who ‘knows her worth’. And I tend to agree with the latter.

To begin, I must say that Davis just re-confirmed that she’s my favourite actress on the planet. If she and the late, great Chadwick Boseman don’t receive a truckload of nominations this awards season I’ll be pissed. Honestly, they are both absolute shoe-ins for Academy Awards based on these performances, and it’ll be a travesty if they don’t gain the recognition they deserve. Davis herself actually claims a relatively small amount of screen-time despite playing the titular character, but if Judi Dench can win an Oscar for an 8 minute performance in Shakespeare In Love, Davis completely deserves to with this.

Yes, it’s extremely stage-y, but seeing as theatres have been closed for so long, I kind of… loved that about it? There are a lot of monologues and a lot of dialogue, and it’s clearly about the performances rather than putting on any fancy show just because it’s a movie, but good god, everyone in this film is excellent so it really doesn’t matter.

The character of Ma herself is completely fascinating even before you factor in the others. I recently listened to Davis being interviewed for this film, and she said that the literature regarding Rainey is so sparse that she had to piece together what she thought the real woman was like. Therefore, this is only her interpretation of the real Ma Rainey, but she does such a great job of capturing her regardless of that fact. For now, I need to stop gushing about these people before this becomes a PSA to The Academy…

Of course, the music itself is superb, which was to be expected. But the best thing? It’s shorter than 100 minutes. It tells a complete story concisely and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome by any means. Whilst I do wish they went a little further in some aspects such as Ma’s sexuality and what happened to Boseman’s character after his shock twist towards the end, I’d assume that the filmmakers pretty much stuck to the original play script, so what they had to work with was quite limited.

Overall, this film is much more about hefty, powerful performances and its interesting storyline than any sort of mind-blowing filmmaking. However, it contains some strong adages about race and religion in 1920s America, and I’m very glad it exists.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available to stream on Netflix in the UK.

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