Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Review

I want to start this post by saying that, for me, it was painful to watch a performance from someone who I know is gone. His character, Levee, was the perfect ending to his career. Levee is full of life, ambition and confidence. It’s who Boseman was and who he let us see and it makes me smile to see him smile in this film.

Now that the niceties are out of the way, let’s get to the details. The film is based off of the play written by August Wilson. Here’s the problem with turning stage plays into films. No one does it right. They leave the monologues in and never really tweak it good enough for the movie version of the play to make sense. That’s what happened in For Colored Girls and Fences. There is also the problem of settings. In stage plays, they’re limited in set changes, for the most part, and the dialogue runs too long. On stage, that makes sense; however, in a movie, it feels displaced and you end up waiting for a transition or action that never comes. It’s frustrating.

The entire scene with the band chit chatting filled time that didn’t need to be filled. I guess I’m supposed to get their personalities from this scene but it dragged on too long for me and what was Toledo talking about?!

Viola Davis’ portrayal of Ma Rainey reminded me of when she was Aibileen in The Help. Her character in that movie is the exact opposite of her character here. Her presence is grand, powerful and unapologetic. I liked how Davis was able to give us Ma Rainey in such a short amount of time. From the first moment you saw her, you knew who she was and what she was about but that wasn’t enough for me.

Because of the death of Boseman, I do have to say that the monologues where his character questions and condemns God is much more powerful since we know the nature of his passing and now know what he was dealing with as the time of filming. This was the part of the film that, before, would have just felt like too much (and it still was) but his personal struggle gave the yelling and tears some real grounding.

Here’s what I think we were really watching. This film felt like a part of a great whole, a full biopic of Ma Rainey–something we didn’t get. It was more like a day in the life of Ma Rainey and her band. There was more Levee than Ma Rainey, which made me sad because I wanted to get more of Ma. I wanted to really know who she was and where she came from. Levee got a whole moment to tell us who he was and where he came from and I wanted that from Ma, not him. The ending reminded me the scene in The Five Heartbeats with the Four Horsemen or the scene in The Little Richard Story where it went between Richard and the white guy who was tasked with remaking his song for the white folk. Not the greatest ending for a movie like this. This was a great moment for Netflix to give us a full series with this play as the foundation for it rather than a movie. I was disappointed and that makes me sad.

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