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  • Writer's pictureEllis Barthorpe

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★★

George C. Wolfe

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts

Denzel Washington was graced with the responsibility of deploying the works of August Wilson onto accomplished and trustworthy directors. And in his first assignment Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, following his own direction of earlier adaptation Fences, he really chose well in George C. Wolfe.

It could've been a real heartache to watch Chadwick Boseman's final performance on the not-so-big screen, but instead I found it rather joyous and a tremendous final flourish in his incredible career; a career tragically cut short far too soon. Boseman is sensational in the role. The emotion that pours from him is mesmerising and it honestly feels like you're watching Levee, not the actor. Two monologues highlight the performance most outwardly and the difference in tone between them is remarkable. This is one of the strongest screen performances I've ever seen and I hope, come 2021, the Academy honour his legacy and this electrifying performance.

Viola Davis should not go unmentioned either. Her presence as Ma Rainey is huge. And it's the tension that she brings when bursting into a scene that flips Levee and the rest of the characters into passionate speeches of wish for freedom and love for music. A shot towards the end shows that had she been less of a trouble to work with, maybe things wouldn't have escalated quite in the same, chaotic fashion. The film has been cleverly marketed and titled to make us assume that this is Ma's story, but it is simply a story of the song and the arguments that can arise when disagreements present themselves between a close-knit, complicated group of individuals. The rest of the supporting cast were brilliant too. Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman in particular are so good as band members Cutler and Toledo, and too give incredible speeches.

Symbolism takes many forms in this wonderful adaptation; whether it's through the suave shoes on Levee's feet or the presence of Ma Rainey herself. And symbolism is so present in plays that perhaps that's why certain elements didn't resonate as well. When making an adaptation, surely some areas of film should be more interestingly shot, to utilise the medium more efficiently. But, the biggest triumph here is Chadwick Boseman. An outstanding performance from a true icon. What a way to conclude a devastatingly short, yet phenomenal career.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom available now on Netflix

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