Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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NBC News

Viola Davis stars in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Avery James Lester, Staff Writer

As the heat rises on a blisteringly hot day, eight people gather in an ancient recording studio. As the tensions rise, so does the viewer’s involvement in the story. As the character’s tear themselves apart, we feel even more connected to them. And as a wonderful singer belts out a powerful ballad, the audience is seduced by the power of the blues.

I felt all these emotions when I watched George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” A largely forgotten film from 2020, it is a worthwhile movie that I found myself pleasantly surprised by through it’s captivating characters, dialogue, music and story.

It takes place on a sweltering day in the Windy City in 1927. Ma Rainey, a popular blues singer, attempts to record her single “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” However, due to many contributing factors including the heat, clashing egos and racism, the tensions throughout all the band members rise and collapse into an emotional climax.

“Ma Rainey’s” is full of mesmerizing performances. Viola Davis plays the titular character with wonderful and somber energy. But the greatest performer, by far and away, is the late Chadwick Boseman. Boseman gave his greatest performance of his career in this movie. Every scene he appears in is emotional and impactful. He is nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance. He will, in all likelihood, win and absolutely deserves it.

My only major critique of this film is purely aesthetic due to my personal preferences. When it comes to period pieces, I find it initially distracting if it feels like the film was meant to take place in a different time period. I’m not talking about the production or costume design: my problem is basically the cinematography. Films from the 1920s have a very particular aesthetic: choppy, low quality film. Now, I know that “Ma Rainey’s” wasn’t made in the 1920s – therefore it would probably have higher grade film quality. However, I feel if cinematographer Tobias Schliessler degraded the footage or even used more darker lenses, I wouldn’t have been distracted that a film set in the Roaring Twenties has the same picture quality of a Marvel movie.

This criticism, however, pales in comparison to the rest of the film. No amount of nitpicks I have can change how moved I was by the end. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” seemed to slip past many people’s radars. This is such a shame because this wonderful blues story is one of the best films to come out of 2020.