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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom


Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyle

Director: George C Wolfe

Too much static talk and not enough music and motion hurts this drama. Based on a stage play, it sure looks it. Apart from a few exterior shots, we could be in a theatre.

It's Chicago towards the end of the roaring twenties. Ma Rainey (Davis) was a real-life singer, the 'mother of the blues', who had a successful recording career until her singing went out of style. There are hints of that here, as trumpet player Levee (the late Boseman) wants to put his own interpretation on Ma's music, while harbouring ambitions to record his own songs with his own band.

The action, such as it is, focuses on the friction between members of Ma's backing band, as they wait for her to arrive for a recording session. Via a slight car accident, which gets swept under the carpet, the autocratic and probably lesbian Ma ultimately blows in, bringing her 'assistant' Dussie Mae (Paige) in tow, and immediately insisting on performing her songs 'the old way', as well as refusing to sing until her requested coca-cola is provided.

Scoffed at by the band, Levee reveals himself to be an embittered man, whose father was hanged after killing four of the men responsible for raping Levee's mother. The part calls for some terrific acting, and Boseman certainly provides it with a laceratingly good performance.

But despite briefly seducing an all-too-willing Dussie Mae, his character's surface cockiness and good humour is all too short-lived.

Davis is also good, although the part of Ma gives her less scope for subtlety, requiring her only to be all-demanding and all-consuming. She also appears to be miming the songs, but no credit is provided at the end.

David Quinlan

USA 2020. UK Distributor: Netflix. Colour by Company 3.
94 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 0, Swearing 2.

Review date: 24 Dec 2020