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Don't Step on His Shoes
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the new Netflix original film, is the adaptation of the August Wilson stageplay of the same name. In essence, it is a contained tragicomedy/drama which follows Ma Rainey, the Queen of Blues, and her bandmates as they attempt to make a record - but hilarity and shenanigans ensue. Many obstacles stand in their way of just getting the record done and being on their merry way. Ma Rainey just wants her Coke, Levee, played brilliantly by Chadwick Boseman (seriously, he's never been better), just wants the song played his way, and many other landmines prevent this recording session from going smoothly. Before I move into the criticism and praise, this must be said: this was Chadwick Boseman's final role before his untimely death - and I have to say, he is a tremendous talent and he will be missed enormously. The film community has lost a legend in his own right and we cannot replace him. Rest in peace, Chadwick.
To talk about Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, is to talk about the acting. And to talk about the acting, is to talk about Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Now, I must say, the acting across the board is terrific. But, they are ultimately eclipsed by the giants who are Davis and Boseman. They are both shoo-ins for nominations and basically locks for wins, if you were to ask me. Which, I'm guessing you are if you're reading this. As I said before, the acting across the board is great and to be commended for all involved. No one here misses a beat and they all work flawlessly and seamlessly together. It's difficult to imagine they were all laser focused as they all just had to be in awe of Boseman and Davis. But, as it turns out, they all did their jobs and they all did it exceedingly well. The film plays like it would on the stage, which should come as no surprise as it's an adaptation of the play. For better or worse, that's how it feels since it's difficult to translate that on-screen and with it being so dialogue heavy. Since it feels like a play, it felt contained to the point where it really couldn't fly as high as it should. But, again, the performances are so amazing and the lines delivered phenomenally well that it doesn't seem to matter all that much. It's so enjoyable and delightful to watch that sometimes you forget, and sometimes you just don't care. If that's your thing, then you will absolutely love this (just as I did!).
The screenplay is one of its main strengths. As stated, it plays out and feels like it would on the stage, for better or worse. The dialogue is so well-written and performative. This allows for the chemistry and the performances to really shine. Especially since we're dealing with such talented actors. The contained nature of the film both helps and hinders it, in my opinion. I believe it does serve the story well as you're with the characters through their plight, and you feel for them. Where its hindered is sometimes the pacing is a bit off and it doesn't continue the momentum the film had from the get-go. The film really does zoom by, aside from the middle to second third of the film. Chadwick Boseman is given a couple monologues to really fly, and he does colorfully. One in particular is strong and delivered powerfully, what I feel sealed the Oscar for him. The film is packed with humor and emotion - which is essential for a film of this nature. The emotion gives the film its dramatic punch and the humor gives it the much needed levity. It's incredibly difficult to make me laugh, and the film was so hilarious it kept me laughing all the way through. That has to be applauded, which I do, emphatically. The screenplay will most assuredly be nominated for the Best Adapted category come Oscar time.
Another notable aspect of the film is in how it's crafted. The direction has to be tip-top given the contained nature of it - and it is. The cinematography is fluid with the camera movements, how it follows our characters in such a confined space. What I loved about it is the long takes, or "oners" as they're aptly called. The camera is always so focused on our characters, what they're feeling, what they're saying, and how they're moving - we move with them. The characters dance, the camera dances, and so do we. I believe this type of cinematography is to be commended and it will likely be recognized throughout Awards Season. Filmmakers can definitely appreciate what is going on here, as we all know this shit is hard. Especially the way the crew was doing it here with this film. The editing on display is smooth as well. It allows the scenes to play out and nothing is ever sudden, jumpy, or brazen. I loved the patience the editor had with the film. The editing let the actors act, the scene breathe, and the viewer to be zoned in. Editing that is not overly flashy is a thankless job. We shouldn't notice good editing. That's why it's good editing. I hope that is to be honored as such.
A Tribute to the Late, Great, Chadwick Boseman
It cannot be repeated enough that Chadwick Boseman was a shining light in this film. He is truly a sight to be seen, and it's abundantly clear why he is receiving such praise for his role. His swan song in Ma Rainey is easily the best of his career and it's hard to see he won't be rewarded for it. I do realize it's not all about awards, but it really isn't close who the best actor of the year is and this performance must have the spotlight right on it. He delivers the most powerful monologue of the year in this film, featuring brute strength, emotion, comedic and dynamic acting. The most impressive part of it all is he transforms into a completely different person in this role. I understand that's exactly what acting is, but most tend to either be typecast or merely recite lines. This is far greater than any of that. Chadwick was simply electric and I could not take my gaze away from his jaw-dropping performance. This is a must-see if not for your own enjoyment, but for his mark on history he leaves with this memorable goodbye from the silver-screen.
Ma Rainey greatly benefits from a cleverly written script, sharp performances, and hugely effective filmmaking. Chadwick Boseman saved his best for last with this farewell performance and Viola Davis dazzles as she always does. The acting across the board is a highpoint of this film and the chemistry, charm, and charisma is abundantly clear. The contained nature of the film both helps and hinders its ability to truly shine. The fact that it can be clearly recognized as coming from the stage, where source material is concerned, is a blessing and a curse in my eyes. It will have no bearing on your enjoyment of the film, or lack thereof, if that's your cup of tea. Only a couple hiccups in the pacing of the film and the limiting one-location conceit really prevent this film from rising to the stratosphere. And how about that ending? Tragic and unsatisfying, but tremendously effective. One cannot complain too much when the rest of the film is so delightful and enormously entertaining.
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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a Netflix original film and is now streaming on Netflix.