Anti-Catholic Philosophy Offensive
A few minutes into Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, I came to realize that this wasn't a movie. This was a play.
I found out later that this movie is in fact a stage play by August Wilson. Adapting a play to a movie is actually a tricky business. Theater is really an actor's medium whereas film is a director's medium. A movie is primarily told through the decisions and vision of the director. But on stage, the actor must command the attention of the audience for the entire time and use every technique they can to draw in the audience. This is one of the reasons that the movie does not work as well.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom takes place almost entirely at a recording studio in 1927 Chicago where Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is recording an album. Her band is made up of the talented and cocky Levee (Chadwick Boseman), lead musician Cutler (Colman Domingo), common sense piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). The day is hot and tensions flare up as delays and conflicts in the group build with dramatic and devastating results.
This is a difficult movie to accurately review without giving spoilers so be warned: SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE REVIEW.
As I said, theater is an actor's medium and the performances are fantastic. You can see how an actor would love to be in this movie. The best of all the performances is Boseman as Levee. As I wrote in an earlier article, "Boseman's performance as Levee is utterly fantastic. His character has a heart that is a black hole of self-centeredness that he covers with swagger. But when the damn breaks, Boseman pushes Levee to emotional depths that are so incredibly difficult to perform well without going over the edge. Leevee is charming, funny, scary, detestable, and sympathetic, sometimes all at the same time. And Boseman plays those contradictions wonderfully.