Ma Rainey's Black Bottom review – Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis share the spotlight

Viola Davis, centre, as Ma Rainey, with (l-r) Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
‘Dynamite’: Viola Davis, centre, as Ma Rainey, with (l-r) Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photograph: David Lee/AP
‘Dynamite’: Viola Davis, centre, as Ma Rainey, with (l-r) Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photograph: David Lee/AP

Davis is formidable as Chicago’s ‘Mother of the Blues’, alongside a whip-sharp Chadwick Boseman in his final screen role, in this often stagey drama

Mark Kermode

Last modified on Sun 13 Dec 2020 07.11 EST

In 2016, Denzel Washington produced, directed and starred in the screen adaptation of August Wilson’s 1985 play Fences, earning a supporting actress Oscar for Viola Davis, along with nods for best actor, best picture and a posthumous screenwriting nomination for Wilson, who died in 2005. Davis is back in the awards-running for her dynamite role as “Mother of the Blues” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey in this latest screen adaptation of Wilson’s work, on which Washington again serves as producer. Like Fences, it showcases some tour de force acting, with Chadwick Boseman similarly at the top of his game in what would tragically prove to be his final screen role. Yet, like its predecessor, the theatrical origins of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom weigh heavy on this film, directed with a stagey air by Tony award winner George C Wolfe.

In late-1920s Chicago, the humid atmosphere of a dingy recording studio is made hotter by the broiling tensions between musicians, producers, managers and an increasingly recalcitrant star. The session will include cutting Ma Rainey’s signature song – a saleable disc that will doubtless earn more for its white backers than any of the black players making the music.

Most are resigned to their lot, living stoically from gig to gig. But young horn player Levee (Boseman), who steals Ma’s spotlight in a thrilling early sequence, has bigger plans. Not only does he have designs on Ma’s trademark bluesy anthem, but he also dreams of leading his own band and recording his own songs. As for Rainey, she’s roped in her young nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), to voice the intro to her song, despite the fact that his stammer will simply add more takes (and therefore more time) to the already fractious recording.

It’s clear from the outset that there’s steely method in Rainey’s apparently chaotic madness. From her car-crash late arrival to her dogged insistence that the band just keep playing the intro till Sylvester gets it right (and gets paid for his efforts), everything is designed to ensure that she is in charge. It’s a battle Rainey has been fighting her whole life, and Davis brilliantly portrays both the vulnerable position and indomitable spirit of this sturdy figure, with fiery eyes shining through the dark shadows and battered rouge of her makeup, proudly standing her ground.

By contrast, Levee is a fleet-footed hustler, bristling with pride over his fancy new shoes, ducking and diving his way through a world in which he’s learned from a young age to hide his anger behind a smile. Boseman, who got James Brown’s moves down pat in the underrated Get on Up, bristles with nervy energy as the new kid on the block, whip-sharp and sparky. Cinematographer Tobias A Schliessler neatly captures the physical dance that plays out between these two disparate characters, allowing actions and movement to speak louder than words.

A shame, then, that despite the best efforts of screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, much of this still feels like a collection of theatrical set pieces, whether it’s soulfully delivered speeches about God, history and childhood scars, or a third-act tragedy that reportedly produced gasps on stage but feels oddly contrived on screen. Sterling music, production design and costume work from Branford Marsalis, Mark Ricker and Ann Roth respectively add to a classy package, but it’s the performances that win the day.