Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the latest film based on an August Wilson play, produced by Denzel Washington, who directed Fences in 2016. Whereas Fences had multiple locations, this film was pretty much set in one location in multiple rooms of a sound studio. Most plays have multiple sets with the play so it makes sense the same goes for movies. Single set films have worked out fine in the past though.
Ma (Viola Davis) is the leader of a jazz/blues band. She and the band leave their comfortable surroundings and heat of the Georgia wilderness to go to Chicago to record a new record. Like any band or team, there are bound to be personality differences amongst the members. Levee (Chadwick Boseman) believes he should be the leader of his band. This causes issues with the other members of the band and Ma. This is a typical trope in movies.
The strengths of the film are August Wilson’s dialogue and the actors performing it. It’s as if they were uttering these words themselves without having to read a script and remember their lines. Boseman, Colman Domingo, and Davis are all terrific in the film. They have mastered this amazing dialogue. This dialogue coming from them is like nothing I’ve seen this year. It’s like music to my ears hearing this jive talk coming from such acclaimed actors.
The biggest flaw of the film is its short length of 94 minutes. This film could have easily gone on longer. They needed to explore more of the story in Georgia. These characters weren’t fleshed out enough for me. More of their back story would have helped me understand their motivation at the sound studio. That being said, this is a play so it makes sense the director followed what was in the play. He probably didn’t want to expand on characters if Wilson didn’t do it himself in the play.
Jazz/blues music isn’t my thing, but I found the moments where we did get some tunes it was enjoyable to listen to. It was a main part of the story, so viewers of the movie had no choice but to get what was there. I just wished we could have gotten more of that stuff. Good jazz and blues music in movies is rare these days. The Chet Baker story starring Ethan Hawke, Born to be Blue, is a rare occasion where everything worked including the music.
This was an enjoyable film because of the great dialogue and acting. It’s rare for them to both come together to make a great tandem these days. The filmmakers should be proud to have gotten this film made. Also that this story is an important one because of the characters and the music in it. This is another solid Netflix film people should seek out.
Dan Skip Allen