Last night was the premiere of Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, one of the year’s most anticipated films and the final film from the late Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer this August. Both he and titular star Viola Davis enter the Oscar race with
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the 2nd of 10 plays by August Wilson and part of his Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicles the 20th-century African-American experience. The title comes from Ma Rainey’s song of the same name and from it the play and film derive their central narrative – the battle of wills during a rehearsal between the Queen of the Blues (Davis) and her new, young trumpet player Levee (Boseman) who has created a new arrangement of the song behind her back that her white producers like better. The film and play take place over a single day in 1927 Chicago during The Great Migration, where millions of African Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West between 1916 and 1970.
After much online chatter and debate over whether Boseman would be pushed lead or supporting for awards consideration this year, Netflix announced that he would be run in lead and it’s the right choice. The film is a swift 94 minutes long and Boseman, with multiple searing monologues, is a dominate force throughout. As I mentioned in my reaction tweet after the screening, it’s “a stellar, Sidney Poitier-level, Oscar-worthy performance.” He simply commands the screen every moment he’s on it and director George C. Wolfe and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (Dreamgirls) give him the room to explode but also when to move in so we can see every bead of sweat, eye twitch and internalized emotion. While a Best Actor Oscar nomination is assured, he could become the first posthumous winner in this category since Peter Finch for 1976’s Network. But, what could separate Boseman from any and all posthumous nominees is the chance to earn a second one, in supporting, for Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, also from Netflix. James Dean is the only performer ever to earn two posthumous acting Oscar nominations but they were in separate years (1955’s East of Eden and 1956’s Giant). He will face steep competition from previous Best Actor winner Anthony Hopkins, who has received career-best raves for The Father.
For Davis, already a supporting actress Oscar winner for another Wilson adaptation (2016’s Fences), she works her way to the front of the line of the Best Actress race this year as Ma Rainey and could join and break some current Oscar records. She’s currently tied with Octavia Spencer as the most nominated Black actress in Oscar history (with 3 apiece) but will undoubtedly become the record holder with four when nominations are announced on March 15, 2021. To date, only one Black woman has ever won the Best Actress Oscar in the 92 years of the Academy Awards (Halle Berry for 2001’s Monster’s Ball). Despite being the film’s titular character, Davis probably could have been run in supporting for the film as she’s gone for extended periods. Ironically, many (including myself) thought she was going to go lead for Fences (where she won the Tony for the same role) but opted for supporting where she became the overwhelming favorite and ultimately won. Fences directed by Oscar winner Denzel Washington, who is a producer on Ma Rainey. After his nomination for Fences, he would become the first Black producer to be nominated twice for Best Picture.
The supporting cast does fantastic work here, with Glynn Turman and especially Colman Domingo standing out. Michael Potts, Dusan Brown and Taylour Paige don’t get to stretch their legs too much but with Jeremy Shamos and Jonny Coyne as Ma’s frazzled white producers, the film could be in the running for a SAG Ensemble nomination.
For director George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey is only his third feature film. Wolfe cut his teeth in theater, winning three Tony Awards, two for directing (1993’s Angels in America and 1996’s Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk). Wolfe opens the play up a bit with a handful of exterior scenes but also makes a genius choice of moving the play from winter to summer to take full advantage of sweat and temperatures heating up literally and metaphorically. He would be only the second out, gay, Black director nominated for the Best Director Oscar in Academy Awards history, after Lee Daniels for 2009’s Precious.
At 89 years of age, Oscar-winning costume designing legend Ann Roth could become the oldest Oscar nominee (and winner) ever. Currently, James Ivory holds that record (also 89) for his adapted screenplay nomination and win for 2017’s Call Me By Your Name. The score by three-time Grammy Branford Marsalis is sparse (we really only hear it outside of the song rehearsal scenes) jumps to life with jazzy riffs that make it seem like the film is going to burst into song itself.
The film’s production design is largely limited to a few main sets in the recording studio but Wolfe’s expansion of the film visually allows production designer Mark Ricker (The Help), and set designers Diana Stoughton (The Fighting Temptations) and Oscar-winner Karen O’Hara (Alice in Wonderland) a slightly more expanded universe to work from. The Oscars love musicals and music-based biopics so the newly merged sound categories (Sound Editing and Sound Mixing are now just Best Sound) might be a tough road with more sound-heavy films in its path but certainly not out of the running. The film’s makeup and hair might find a place with Davis’s, weight suit, intentionally heavy grease paint makeup and mouth full of silver caps.
Netflix will release Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in select theaters this November then exclusively on the streamer December 18.