Thursday, April 25, 2024

Plays into films - ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ ‘One Night in Miami’

by TYLER WILSON/Coeur Voice contributor
| December 26, 2020 1:00 AM

One of Netflix’s big award contenders,“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” contains the masterful final performance by the late Chadwick Boseman. He’s incredible in the film, an adaptation of the stage production written by acclaimed playwright August Wilson (“Fences”).

“Ma Rainey” is one of several movie adaptations of stage shows released in 2020 (including Netflix releases of “The Boys” and “The Prom”), not to mention Disney’s release of the original “Hamilton” stage production. “Ma Rainey’s” will likely be the most memorable of the Netflix bunch thanks to powerhouse performances by Boseman and Viola Davis in the title role.

The challenge with such films is integrating cinematic elements into a story intended for the stage, and the easiest approach typically involves recruiting movie star-level talent. “Ma Rainey” is a one-two punch of a performance piece, with Davis portraying the fiery, outspoken blues singer during a contentious recording session in 1920s Chicago. Boseman plays an upstart trumpet player in the band hoping to break out of Ma’s shadow and record his own music.

The movie comes packed with rich monologues, though Davis and Boseman share only a few scenes together (the band spends much of the story in the studio’s decrepit practice room in the basement). While music is the motivator for bringing these characters together, the film explores many aspects of the African-American experience in 1920s America.

The period detail overseen by director George C. Wolfe recreates the time period with impressive production design and costuming, and the drama of the story outlives its time period. Still, like many films based on talky stage productions, some scenes feel too restrained by its own walls, and the climax, which retains the original show’s ending, needs a bit more time and space on film to better resonate.

Regardless of the nitpicks, Davis and Boseman deliver big in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, making the sudden loss of Boseman earlier this year sting even more. So much talent. Both performances are sure Oscar contenders.

If I had a vote for the best stage adaptation of the year, I’d give it to “One Night in Miami,” from the Kemp Powers-penned show about the fictionalized meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke in a Miami hotel room in 1964 (after Ali bested Sonny Listen in the ring earlier in the evening).

The directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, “One Night in Miami” finds creative ways to expand the scope of the stage play, including an extended prologue that provides context to the evening as well as some key background on these well-known figures.

Again, the performances here make the experience - Leslie Odom Jr. predictably nails Sam Cooke, Eli Goree elevates his Muhammad Ali well above simple imitation and Aldis Hodge manages to standout as Jim Brown even while alongside the more “larger-than-life” characters in the cast. Then there’s Kingsley Ben-Adir giving a powerful, richly woven turn as Malcolm X. He does so without evoking any aspect of Denzel Washington’s iconic take in Spike Lee’s epic 1992 biopic.

“One Night in Miami” only occasionally trips when it tries to retrofit too much history into its fictional premise. For a vast majority of its runtime though, Regina King adds a cinematic verve to an already compelling night of conversation.

I saw “One Night in Miami” as part of the Middleburg Film Festival in October. It will play in some theaters over the next couple weeks before debuting exclusively on Amazon Prime on Jan. 15.

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Tyler Wilson has been writing about movies for Inland Northwest publications since 2000. He co-hosts “Old Millennials Remember Movies,” available everywhere you find podcasts. He can be reached at