Last night I finally saw Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix, 12.18). It’s an Oscar contender, all right — Best Picture, Viola Davis for Best Actress and especially the late Chadwick Boseman for Best Actor. Whatever the consensus about artistic chops may be in the long run (guild and Academy members will probably view it favorably), the Oscar odds will certainly be fortified by cultural and political factors. Which are always factors in each and every Oscar race anyway.
The bottom line is that Ma Rainey is a respectably articulate and justifiably angry film on its own terms, and is certainly well written (albeit in a stagey theatrical style) and well performed.
I’d never seen the 1982 August Wilson play that Ruben Santiago Hudson‘s screenplay is based upon, but I knew what the basic bones would be about. Set in 1920s Chicago, it’s about white recording producers not treating black performers (like Davis’s Rainey and Boseman’s “Levee”) with sufficient deference and financial respect, and this vague back-of-the-hand treatment resulting in a certain amount of rage and self-destruction.
I’m talking about producers dismissing original creations and not offering enough compensation, and at the end of the day hiring white musicians to perform black music — a syndrome that infamously persevered during the ’50s with black r&b artists like Little Richard supplanted by white rockers like Elvis Presley.
So I knew what Ma Rainey basically was, but I was surprised to find it darker, blunter and more searing than expected. Especially regarding the fate of one of the characters whose name is not part of the title. It’s fair to mention that Ma Rainey delivers a shocking, tragic ending.
That said I don’t personally feel that it has quite the heft and breadth of The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mank, the other two big Netflix Oscar contenders. But it’s a standout package.
Boseman has a big moment when he recalls personal tragedy and heartbreak regarding his late mom…this is the scene that will put him over as a Best Actor contender. That plus the fact that fate recently dealt a rotten hand to the poor guy, who was only 43 and had everything to live for. But what if cancer had passed him by? Would he still be a Best Actor favorite like Network‘s Peter Finch and The Dark Knight‘s Heath Ledger, who were both nominated and awarded posthumously ? I don’t know the answer but it’s fair to ask this, I think.
The community seems to have decided that Boseman is playing a lead, although to me “Levee” feels more like a strong supporting character.
Davis’s Ma is obviously front and center, but her on-screen vigors don’t precisely or abundantly amount to a lead performance either. She’s a strong, flinty character, of course — willful, tough-spoken, combative. But apart from Ma’s erotic fixation upon Taylour Paige‘s “Dussie Mae” and her patience with and compassion for a stuttering piano player (Dusan Brown‘s “Sylvester”), she struck me as chiefly defined by anger or resentment, and I mean nearly every other thing that comes along.
A journo pally says he more or less agrees with the above. He also believes Boseman will win the Best Actor Oscar for reasons you might expect, one of them being that his performance is fierce, impassioned, carefully crafted, etc.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he elaborated. “Boseman is good and Davis is his equal, but the movie couldn’t quite escape it’s stage origins and the characters didn’t feel as alive and movie-immediate as they might have been. It’s the same feeling I had with the film adaptation of Wilson’s Fences. You could immediately tell it was based on a stage play — monologues, lengthy conversations, all of it carefully timed and fully mapped out in advance.
THR‘s Scott Feinberg: “[Davis and Boseman] will be formidable contenders for lead acting honors throughout the season to come. As for the film itself? I anticipate that the two most common responses to Ma Rainey…will be that (a) it is a bleak story centered on some pretty hard-to-warm-up-to characters, and (b) its script and performances do a great job of provoking thought about the way that artists of color have been treated in the past and present.”