REVIEW: ‘Ma Rainey’s story doesn’t translate well to Netflix

Netflix’s latest picture takes audiences back to the Roaring 20s with a Blues tale based on a play.

Viola Davis plays the titular character here, who was a real life singer. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was a woman with several hits during the 1920s, including “Black Bottom.”

This movie picks up with her and her band visiting a Chicago office to record that song and others for an album. The movie follows Ma’s experiences, and her band members’, such as Levee (Chadwick Boseman) as the recording session goes on.

Some plays can be nicely and smoothly adapted to a feature film. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with “Black Bottom.” Because of the contained location and excessive monologues, it becomes quite clear early on that the movie was originally made for a stage, and not in a good way.

In a play, some of these scenes could be more powerful, and transitions from one to another likely feel more natural when the curtains close and reopen. However, on screen, the sequences seem to drag and then abruptly end, leading to awkward transitions.

The story itself likely plays out better on stage, too. In a movie format, though, “Black Bottom” comes across to most viewers more like a series of vignettes, rather than a coherent story that’s building to a climax and resolution.

There’s the overall ‘journey’ of the main characters working toward putting out a record, but it doesn’t feel like things are moving forward. Plus, there’s a lack of any character having a true arc to get through.

Courtesy Netflix

The movie is certainly benefited from the inclusion of two fantastic performers on screen. Davis, an Academy Award winner, and the late Boseman, a strong actor who had a great career and life ahead of him, give the movie a performative weight.

Each thespian has tremendous screen presence and they are powerful in their roles. They steal the show throughout the movie and draw an audience’s attention.

Unfortunately the way the film handles the characters themselves leaves much to be desired. Rainey, for example, is understandably a character as who’s determined to be treated fairly, but at times she almost comes across as too antagonistic. There are moments where she seems unnecessarily angry, even toward her friends.

The movie also introduces another woman, Dussie Mae, a girlfriend of Rainey. Yet this character doesn’t really have much of an identity and one can’t really find the depth of her relationship with Rainey.

Levee, meanwhile, is passionate, but it’s not always clear what’s driving him. It can be hard to tell at times if he loves music as an art form, if he mainly wants fame or if he just found music as the best path to get ahead in life.

This is another example of how the stage didn’t translate to the film format, as the characters at times seem one dimensional.

The movie does at least earn points thanks to great design work. The makeup, costumes, and set all look very nice, and it helps recreate the period. The heat from the summer day to the fashion of the time is all convincingly brought to life.

Despite a few positives, though, “Black Bottom” is mostly a disappointing experience. It’s a tough watch and just an example of something not translating to the screen. 2.25 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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