[Review] ‘MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM’ a chamber piece with powerhouse performances, layered storytelling


Preston Barta // Features Editor


Rated R, 94 minutes.
Director: George C. Wolfe
Cast: Viola DavisChadwick BosemanColman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Dusan Brown, Jeremy Shamos, Taylour Paige and Jonny Coyne

For those unfamiliar with August Wilson’s original play, the title may have a Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity ring to it. But don’t let it fool you; this story is about as powerful as it gets in terms of content and performances.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is timely and heartfelt. It boasts an incredible cast, including the inimitable Viola Davis as the title blues singer and the late Chadwick Boseman as a trumpet player in Ma Rainey’s band.

Set entirely in a Chicago recording studio on a hot August afternoon, the film centers on a group of musicians (Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts) and the legendary Ma Rainey as they record several songs during the Roaring Twenties. It’s a simple premise, but the magic happens in the in-between moments. Much of the runtime is dedicated to absorbing discussions and arguments among the musicians. Each of them brings their own questions of prejudice and the American Dream and powder keg of issues.

Adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (mostly known for his acting work on television series such as CASTLE and BILLIONS), the text never feels too direct, preachy, or on the nose. Enough is laid down to pick up and ponder upon its forceful themes. This also extends to its imagery, principally through Wilson’s focus on shoes and feet as symbols of exploitation and social mobility. The arc of one pair of shoes alone will send you mind racing with thoughts.

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (2020) Chadwick Boseman as Levee. Cr. David Lee/NETFLIX

It’s the actors who give the words flight. As Ma Rainey, Davis brings her character’s larger-than-life persona to the screen without turning her into a mockery. Her arbitrary demands for her white manager and studio owner highlight Ma’s conflict and compensate for her ultimate powerlessness. The rivalry between her and Boseman’s character is a perfect storm of acting. Boseman shines, front and center. He conveys deeply complex emotions with scenes featuring lengthy dialogue. There are times where you feel for him and other times where you fear for him. A scene of him wrestling with God’s will is nothing shy of unforgettable.

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is a raw work that takes risks. Many storytellers would include the more notable moments that likely would happen around what unfolds here, such as the one big show or a more sprawling narrative. However, like life, it’s the small moments that are truly the biggest.

In a year filled with hate and racial disparity, this is a story about black voices fighting to be heard and have agency. A lot transpires inside the walls of this recording studio. Topics and viewpoints land with significant impact. It teaches patience and offers a perspective that makes you want to listen. Allow the film to stun, move, and open you up with a desire to hear more stories.

Grade: B+

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is now playing in select theaters and available to stream on Netflix.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.