Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Netflix Film Review

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Like millions of others around the globe, I was shocked and upset about the death of Chadwick Boseman in August, and while seeing him on screen makes me sad because it reminds me he’s gone, I found some solace in the fact that he delivers an almighty final performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

The film is set in a recording studio in Chicago on one hot and sweaty afternoon in 1927. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), the fearless diva known as the Mother of the Blues, is running late and her band await her arrival in the rehearsal room where tensions arise between hot-headed trumpeter Levee (Boseman), bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman). Levee ruffles feathers by flirting with Ma’s girlfriend and making his desire to play his own music and start his own band known.

I hadn’t done any reading up on this before I settled down to watch it and within 15-20 minutes it became immediately obvious that this was based on a play – one by August Wilson, I discovered later. A good chunk of the film is spent in the downstairs rehearsal room where the band spends more time bickering than rehearsing and then the action moves upstairs to the recording room once Ma eventually shows up. Levee has a huge amount of dialogue as he goes off on rants about various grievances and verbally spurs with the band about all sorts. It was interesting to a point but I was glad when Ma arrived to change up the dynamic.

The performances are the main draw here and I expect to see Boseman and Davis’ names come up during awards season. This is Davis like you’ve never seen her before. She is practically unrecognisable as Ma thanks to the weight she gained for the role, plus the heavy make-up and gold teeth she wears, and the fact she is drenched in sweat. Ma is fierce, determined, and refuses to make any compromises – things have to be exactly her way, much to the displeasure of her white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). I considered her the lead since she’s the title character, but she’s surprisingly not in it as much as I expected.

Knowing what we know about Boseman now, it’s truly incredible that he managed to pull off such a barnstorming performance in his last-ever film role. There is so much anger and rage in Levee from past trauma and it requires so much energy to go off his rants. He is a man on the edge and out of control and Boseman throws his all into the role. I’ll be amazed if he doesn’t get honoured posthumously for this.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes a while to get going but really hits its stride when Ma shows up – the recording scenes are a fascinating watch – and from there it builds to a shocking finale. Definitely worth checking out.

Streaming on Netflix from Friday 18th December

Rating: 4 out of 5.