Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the film adaptation of a play. Like a play, the acting is very dramatic and sometimes over the top. This is Chadwick Boseman's final film, he plays levy the young driven trumpet player. Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey the superstar Blues singer who is unwilling to change or compromise on anything. This sets up a proxy battle through the producer between Levee with his new interpretations of classics and Ma with her insistence that everything is done her way.
Ma Rainey was a real-life pioneer in blues music, but this is a work of historical fiction. The story is about one singular recording session of one song in Chicago. It touches on white exploitation of black talent, the producer and agent are white while the talent is black. Ma does her best to disrupt this power balance with her insistence that everything is done her way throughout the film. She is clearly in charge and exerts that power repeatedly.
There is an element of machismo in Levee mixed with youthful exuberance. He is desperate to record his version of the song despite what Ma says and the rest of the band reminding him of his place. He ends up being the person most exploited when the dust settles. Boseman’s portrayal is frantic and builds tension throughout the film. I did not understand the impetus of why that day justified all the build-ups.
This is not my favorite Chadwick Boseman film but, it does show off his range as an actor. Stage acting and film acting are different beasts. To enjoy this film, you must go in with expectations that you are seeing a film adaptation of a play. The sets are compact and simple, and the performances are such that you could see them from the cheap seats in the back row. I prefer larger-scale productions when I sit down to watch a movie.