Netflix produces a lot of exclusive content, some astounding, and some less so. Certain content even has something to say, a message to present, one hopefully that resonates with the audience and doesn’t fall flat. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has a lot to say, which definitely caught me off guard.
From the trailer and promotional material I presumed that this film was about the titular Ma Rainey and some development in blues music with the featured trumpet player. I adore music, so it piqued my interest. I googled the film and discovered it was an adaptation of a 1982 play of the same name by August Wilson. Live theatre is a wonderful medium and I enjoy plays and musicals greatly, so I bumped Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to top priority.
My presumptions about the film were only partially right, Ma Rainey sang the blues for sure, but the story covered so much more than just music. Upon realizing the film’s deeper intentions – those of conceptual and moral ideas – I started to notice the similarities matching play to film.
Rather than sitting in an auditorium witnessing the play, the film’s camera plays the audience as it follows characters through scenes. The choices made with the shots and edits are incredibly fluid.
At times, the camera settles into a wide shot, displaying the set and conversation as one, much like the stage of a play. Other times the film embraces the camera’s potential and tracks the conversation, cutting from person to person throughout the discussion. Finally, there are the monologues – powerful moments dotted throughout the film where the camera lingers, letting the audience truly digest what the character is displaying.
Hilariously it’s these similarities that show how simple yet moving some plays can be, often taking place in as few sets as possible, consisting of character drama, arguing, and monologues that offer wisdom and perspective. These similarities also mean most of the scenes run in real time, and this unfortunately causes a few scenes to feel as if they drag on a touch too long.
Still, it’s a film not a play, so while some scenes are edited fluidly to match the tempo of the live “one take” performances in plays, there are standout hard cut transitions that mark a transition of sets or time jumps. These hard cuts remind the audience swiftly of the current medium they are consuming, as it’s possible to find oneself lost in some of the monologues.
With a story that consists of intense emotional weight, one needs excellent talent to make those speeches translate to audiences. Each character is performed well, but the clear standouts are Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as Levee Green. Both actors give wondrous performances and deliver wholeheartedly in their individual showcases.
In other films, when actors talk about a distant time, place, or concept, the filmmaker may choose to visually represent this underneath their speaking. Perhaps it cuts away to a relevant or contradictory subject to hammer home the point of the speech.
Instead of this, the points to be made in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are the characters themselves, so during monologues the camera lingers tensely and inches slowly into a close up. The actors spring into overdrive as the camera draws near and they continue their descriptive story. Their eyes gloss over, and you can see that they are picturing exactly what they are saying in their mind. Suddenly you realize you had been doing the same. Inserting your own mental image as the story went along, continually adding more detail and emotion, until your eyes resembled theirs – lost in the moment.
Moments like these were absolutely gripping, and it’s all thanks to the incredible writing and powerful performances from the cast. I found myself so lost in one of Levee’s stories that a hard cut to the Chicago L train made me jump (probably to the editor’s delight).
Tragically, Chadwick Boseman passed away last August from colon cancer, and Levee Green was his last performance. Without describing too much of the plot and his character, it feels appropriate for Boseman to have played a young and ambitious black artist laden with tragedy. Tragedy is found throughout the film, but as a result of it the audience can grow and learn.
The film has a lot to say – teaching its lessons through conflict, between characters, structures, and within themselves. The story is explicitly Black as well and offers an important lesson in the history of social structure and the exploitative music industry during the 20’s. I don’t want to describe the themes of the film in too much detail, as it may deflate their impact, I simply want to state that the film executes and translates clear concepts and meaning to the audience through its deep character drama.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was a unique play adaptation, a switch from the normal “bigger is better” formula. It honors its forebear by maintaining its plot and themes while offering sublime craftsmanship in its filmmaking and acting.
I found myself fully absorbed in the story not because of novel concepts, gimmicks, or grand CGI, but because the characters’ personal stories were moving and performed magnificently. Given the film’s trend to be somewhat dour, it’s a hard film to recommend to any current average moviegoer. However, if live theatre is something you enjoy, darker themes should be no stranger, so enjoy the performances and hold your breath.
Written by Damon Rios
Damon is an amateur writer and professional media consumption artist. Movies, music, games, and books are all on the table. He is working towards a bachelor’s in communications and hopes to go professional in any writing capacity. As stated, Damon’s habits rotate from music consumption, to movie consumption, and everything in between.