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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom First Reviews: Chadwick Boseman Delivers Knockout Final Performance

Critics say the late actor and Viola Davis are magnetic, leading a strong ensemble in a visually sumptuous adaptation of the August Wilson play that should earn them awards recognition.

by | November 20, 2020 | Comments

Everyone is talking about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for one reason above all: the Netflix Original features the final performance by Chadwick Boseman, who shockingly died of cancer over the summer. And as the first reviews arrive for the biographical drama, based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, Boseman continues to receive the majority of attention, mostly in the form of praise for his last work. But there are other reasons to look forward to the movie, including Viola Davis’ performance as the titular “Mother of the Blues” as well as Wilson’s powerful writing and some unforgettable moments as directed by George C. Wolfe.

Here’s what critics are saying about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom:


Let’s get right to it: How is Boseman’s final performance?

Boseman is a revelation.
– Fionnuala Halligan, Screen International

On a whole other level here… Watching him in this film is an absolutely hypnotic experience.
– Joey Magidson, Awards Radar

Boseman’s performance really is the stuff of acting legend…[he] will make you feel like screen actors rarely are able to do.
– J. Don Birnam, Splash Report

The confidence and composure of the icons he has played before has melted away into a kind of nervous insecurity we’ve never seen in the actor.
– Peter Debruge, Variety

There are times where you have to remind yourself to breathe watching his performance.
– Matt Goldberg, Collider

Ma Rainey is a hilarious film, and Boseman, through his coy smile, and displaying his full range, is equally hilarious in it.
– Robert Daniels, IGN Movies

What a glorious performance to go out on.
– Peter Bradshaw, Guardian

It’s no stretch to say his last performance may be his finest.
– Odie Henderson, RogerEbert.com


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

(Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

Does Boseman’s death cast a shadow over the achievement?

We should have been just getting started with him. Sadly, this will have to stand as the crowning performance of his career.
Joey Magidson, Awards Radar

Chadwick Boseman’s astonishingly dynamic and charismatic performance reminds us of a promising future that can no longer come to pass. I can hardly think of a more fitting final act for his career than this.
Shane Slater, Film Actually

It’s an Oscar-worthy performance in what should have been a long career filled with Oscars.
Matt Goldberg, Collider

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is such a difficult movie to watch. While watching, it’s impossible not to face facts: this is it… turns out Boseman did have one last gift for us.
Mike Ryan, Uproxx

Boseman would cast a huge shadow over the film even if he hadn’t tragically passed away earlier this year at the age of 43.
Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

Even if Boseman were alive, his name would still certainly be on the shortlist for an Oscar nomination.
Gabriella Geisinger, Digital Spy


How is Viola Davis?

Davis as the titular Ma Rainey gives one of the performances of her career.
Gabriella Geisinger, Digital Spy

It is one of the best performances of Davis’ career — a career already filled with many such depictions.
J. Don Birnam, Splash Report

The most engrossing, inspired transformation of her career.
Eric Kohn, IndieWire

Her performance is both otherworldly and all too human.
Oliver Jones, Observer

It’s a delectably grand performance.
Odie Henderson, RogerEbert.com

As Ma Rainey, Davis confirms how wide-ranging her talent is.
Fionnuala Halligan, Screen International


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

(Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

Is the rest of the cast good?

The supporting cast deserves acclaim for their work.
Matt Goldberg, Collider

While Boseman and Davis are the stars, don’t sleep on Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman, who are excellent in their supporting parts.
Joey Magidson, Awards Radar

Domingo gives the character a quiet authority that is essential to the band dynamic and elevates not just Boseman but Davis’ performance as well.
Jason Guerrasio, Insider

Much will be made of Boseman and Davis’ work here, but Turman’s excellent work is also worthy of notice.
Odie Henderson, RogerEbert.com

The great Glynn Turman. This is the supporting performance that will get the awards attention… This is Turman’s moment even more than it is Boseman’s.
Roger Friedman, Showbiz 411


How is the film as an adaptation?

You can feel the full force of Wilson’s play barrel down from the stage and into your living room.
Oliver Jones, Observer

This Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels not just adapted but accelerated, as if it were racing to meet the deadline its own characters keep putting off.
Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who adapted the play for the screen, honors Wilson’s eloquent and vernacular dialogue, which includes moments of wit.
Caryn James, BBC.com

Taking a play and turning it into a film has inherent challenges… The ability it shows to overcome that potential challenge makes it a superior work to the already well done Fences.
Joey Magidson, Awards Radar

Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have put the play into the movie, rather than vice versa.
Eric Kohn, IndieWire


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

(Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

Does it transcend its stage play origins?

Ma Rainey feels fresh as a film.
Fionnuala Halligan, Screen International

While you can “feel” the stage origins, over time, that stuff kind of dissipates when the performances are so good.
Matt Goldberg, Collider

There is a static quality to some of the back and forth, but… the contained staginess of the movie comes off as welcome, intimate and, in the hands of these boldly empathetic performers, quite thrilling.
Oliver Jones, Observer

[Santiago-Hudson] and Wolfe do what they can to open up the play but the movie still remains, in a good way, stagey. There’s no way around it.
Roger Friedman, Showbiz 411

The characters move through space as if they were blocked for the stage, and it’s slightly distracting to watch.
Gabriella Geisinger, Digital Spy

Wilson’s dialogue is very “written” sounding, very theatrical, and it almost feels like the entire ensemble are acting on a podium rather than attempting to deliver a legitimate feature film.
Jordan Ruimy, World of Reel


How does the film look?

Right away, it was hard not to notice how striking the imagery of this film is throughout.
Aaron Neuwirth, We Live Entertainment

Tobias Schilesser, who typically shoots action or showy movies alongside the likes of Peter Berg and Bill Condon, delivers a radiant cinematography.
J. Don Birnam, Splash Report

Tobias A. Schliesser’s vibrant cinematography works wonders in up close, but has a flatter quality in some of the interstitial moments between the big set pieces.
Eric Kohn, IndieWire


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

(Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

Are there any criticisms?

Despite being the titular character, Ma Rainey doesn’t feel like the protagonist, which is disappointing given that this film provides a rare look into Black American queer history.
Flora Spencer Grant, Little White Lies

The film lacks a definitive center to ground its strengths… [It] gets so caught up in its busy dialogue-driven sequences that the purpose behind them can often feel quite thin.
Matt Conway, Battle Royale With Cheese

The film sometimes fails to keep your attention, to keep you engaged in the act of watching.
Gabriella Geisinger, Digital Spy


Does it feel timely?

Even though Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set over 90 years ago, it feels unsettlingly timely in the way that all historical films which deal with racism will until these issues are meaningfully addressed.
Flora Spencer Grant, Little White Lies

It’s a story of Black lives and Black music in the early 20th century that has lost little of its significance in the 21st.
Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times

Navigating an entertainment system that’s rigged against people of colour, ownership over one’s art, and knowing your worth are all things that Black artists still grapple with today.
Amon Warmann, Empire Magazine


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

(Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

How is the ending?

Wilson does not write happy plays, and this one ends on a note that sounds like the weary sigh on a sad trombone.
Peter Debruge, Variety

If you feel a sorrowful pit in your stomach at the conclusion of the proceedings, you will have Boseman’s characterization of Wilson’s heartbreaking character to thank for it.
J. Don Birnam, Splash Report

The climactic act of violence has been staged in oddly stilted terms, though the emotion resonates because of its wider context… [It’s] one of the great cinematic moments of the year.
Eric Kohn, IndieWire


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres on Netflix on Friday, December 18, 2020.

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