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Oscar-worthy Chadwick Boseman saves his best for last in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, but it’s a muddled misfire of a movie

Michael McCaffrey
Michael McCaffrey

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Oscar-worthy Chadwick Boseman saves his best for last in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, but it’s a muddled misfire of a movie
Establishment critics are pandering over racial politics when they fawn over this sub-par study of the famous blues singer. But the fact the film is so weak makes Chadwick Boseman’s pulsating performance all the more remarkable.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, and is based upon the August Wilson stage play of the same name, premiered this past Friday on Netflix with much fanfare.

The buzz surrounding the film, which tells the story of legendary blues singer Ma Rainey and her band as they endure a tumultuous recording session, has suggested that Boseman, the famed star of Black Panther who died of colon cancer in August at the age of 43, should win a Best Actor Oscar for his final film role.

I went into my viewing of Ma Rainey skeptical of the voracity of Boseman’s supposedly Oscar-worthy work. In the wake of the tragic death of an artist, particularly a young one, critics often succumb to sentimentality and overlook skill. I assumed the same was true of those praising Boseman, who plays Levee, the combustible cornet player in Ma Rainey’s band, who’s blessed with prodigious talent and equal ambition.

I also brought my own personal history regarding Boseman’s past acting work to my viewing. I know it is blasphemous to say now, but I’ve never been impressed by Boseman as an actor. I always felt he was a safe and comfortable screen presence, but lacked charisma as a movie star and depth as an artist.

After viewing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which currently boasts a 99-percent critical score at Rotten Tomatoes, I can report two things. Critics are right about Boseman, who gives a superb performance, but they are terribly wrong about the film itself, which is thin cinematic gruel.

In fact, Boseman’s performance is all the more noteworthy because it overcomes the inept direction and flimsy filmmaking that surrounds it.

Boseman’s death unquestionably brings a profundity to the film that would otherwise be lacking. It’s impossible to watch one of his scintillating monologues as Levee, where he rants and raves against God, without the uncomfortable acknowledgement that the actor was grappling with his own tenuous mortality at the time of filming, which was about a year before he died.

In the film, Boseman’s usually safe and comfortable screen presence is replaced by a pulsating existential energy that frantically emanates from his every pore. Boseman’s nice-guy persona is used as a subversive weapon in Ma Rainey, as it lulls the audience into a false sense of security, and that deception adds a powerful depth and dimension to his character.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie has nowhere near as much meat on its bones as Boseman’s feast of superb acting.

The blame for the film’s failure falls squarely on director George C. Wolfe. A stage director with minimal and dismal film credits, Wolfe is desperately out of his league on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

The film feels rushed and dramatically unmoored. It has the aesthetic of a made-for-TV movie, so much so that I was half expecting, if not hoping for, commercial breaks. It also lacks any narrative rhythm and is as visually stale as it is awkwardly staged.

Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey and she too is garnering critical praise and Oscar buzz, but her performance is forced and ineffective. Davis is an actress who seems to want audiences to like her, and her Ma Rainey lacks genuine grounding because of it. Or to put it another way, her Ma Rainey’s bottom isn’t big enough or black enough (in a metaphysical and symbolic sense – not a physical or racial one) to convince.

Davis’s performance, and in turn the film, also suffer greatly because her lip-syncing is so distractingly devoid of any believability or vitality.

It is terribly unfortunate that the work of August Wilson, one of America’s greatest playwrights, has yet to be successfully adapted to cinema. Wilson’s classic Fences hit the big screen in 2016 and garnered similar critical praise, but that too felt undeserved and fueled by something other than honest critical assessment.

The truth is that establishment critics often review racially-themed films made by minority directors featuring minority casts using paternalistic kid gloves and on a pronounced curve. For example, critics swooned over the middling and mundane Marvel movie Black Panther. So, I have no doubt that the current critical adulation for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is due to the film’s racial politics rather than its supposed cinematic worthiness.

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The reality is that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the height of middlebrow mediocrity, but it will still attract copious amounts of fawning from poseurs and pawns eager to signal their anti-racist virtue. One of the worst consequences of our current racial moral panic is that film and film criticism have become so politically correct and socially delicate as to be rendered artistically irrelevant and intellectually impotent.

Those heaping praise and adoration on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will only reveal themselves to be shamelessly pandering philistines rather than studiously sophisticated cinephiles.

Unfortunately, in these hopelessly woke times, this sub-par film is guaranteed to garner a plethora of Oscar nominations, but none will be deserving except for Boseman’s.

The bottom line is that it’s a tragedy that Chadwick Boseman’s greatest performance came in his final role and that it had to happen in such a muddled misfire of a movie as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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