Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) review

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom still

If you would ask me what Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about, I would tell you in a few words that won’t necessarily entice you watch it. The film’s premise is lukewarm and makes you wonder about the necessity of producing it. Because, one thing we’re sure of: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom works much better in this theatrical play format.

Transporting that to the big screen was a matter of time. However, the result seems more like a quick celebration of acting abilities. The story is there for you to explore, and its twist is still shocking no matter the format. But Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is sadly going to be forgotten in a few years. It will be remembered only because it stars Chadwick Boseman in his last role.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tells the story of a band that get together in a recording studio in order to record Ma’s latest album. She’s an influential and powerful blues singer. Her attitude is defying, and her personality holds as much power as her voice.

But in the studio there’s a clash of egos. The trumpeter, Levee is trying to break away from the band’s style and do his own thing. His mates don’t believe as much as he does. When Ma gets delayed, and the rehearsal must begin, we come to know about the musicians and their turbulent past.

Ma finally arrives and with her some news. She’s looking to make some changes in the session. This causes an issue with the producer, the rest of the musicians, and Ma herself. She will stop at nothing.

The film’s pivotal role is Ma’s, portrayed by Viola Davis. She has a presence that’s only hard to miss. Her clothes and makeup are flamboyant and loud as her voice. You understand the reasons behind her position. The presence of Colman Domingo and Michael Potts is inexplicably wasted in favor of Boseman. I understand the reason, yet they feel more like an addition, when they should have been key players in the film’s power struggle plot.

I found the backdrop more interesting. The conflicts of men behind Ma’s voice. Their stories are incredibly connected with the sound they make with their instruments. The film moves at a rapid and dynamic pace and this is greatly shown in the film’s first act. The problem is when the film has to move past its basic premise. It has little direction aside from a powerful duo that perform their hearts out. But what good is acting without a compelling story behind that expression? The film holds a very dramatic ending that speaks directly to the demons of our past. But did I feel it? Not really.

If I had to explain the film, then I would certainly go for the reasons behind the blues and its original and heavy sound. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a collection of scenes that serve as essential ingredients to a composition about the origins of blues. Yes, there are stories there, and they are worth hearing.

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Federico Furzan

Founder of Screentology. Member of the OFCS. RT Certified Critic

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