One of the most anticipated films of this awards season, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” emerges as one of the premier Oscar vehicles for Netflix. At its soulful core, the farewell performance of the late Chadwick Boseman is as invigorating as anticipated. His work as Levee may very well be his best and most spiritual gift to cinema. Boseman has a real opportunity to join a short list that includes Peter Finch and Heath Ledger, two posthumous Oscar nominees who won their respective categories.
Based on the August Wilson play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” tells the story of the tension that builds between Ma Rainey, nicknamed the “Mother of Blues” (played by Viola Davis), her ambitious horn player Levee, and the white management determined to control her music in 1927 Chicago.
After it was reported that Boseman would be submitted in lead actor by Netflix, one of the questions bubbling has been, “is it the right call?” In fact, I believe it is. If there is a lead of the film, it is undoubtedly Levee, and in a crisp 94-minute runtime, Boseman has the biggest moments with the most narrative heft. Along with his work in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” back in June, this year could be shaking up to be a coronation and tribute for the inspirational talent. He very well could become the first double posthumous acting nominee in the same year. James Dean garnered two consecutive nominations following his death for “East of Eden” and “Giant.”
In the shadow of the actor’s untimely death in August, his work as Levee as Boseman lays out everything that’s in his artistic arsenal. Perhaps he knew it was likely to be his final film, or maybe not, but there is a poignancy and spiritual elevation in what he communicates and he’ll be a formidable competitor with Anthony Hopkins in “The Father.”
Co-star Davis, who truly ignites in her eloquent, transformative work, is likely to secure her spot in the best actress race. She’s currently tied with Octavia Spencer as the most nominated Black actress in Oscar history, and could even break that record come March 15, 2021, when the Academy Award nominations are announced. She’ll also be just the second Black actress to be nominated again after winning her Academy Award, also following Spencer. Davis won her first Oscar in best supporting actress for 2016’s “Fences” from director Denzel Washington, who also serves as a producer on “Ma Rainey.” It was debated whether her “Fences” role was lead or supporting, and we may hear similar rumblings regarding her work as the uncontrollable singer. She does her own singing on one of the film’s numbers, which is impressive.
Helmed by Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe (“Angels in America”), the veteran director of theater understands the story’s soul but keeps the film very much framed in its stage settings. The director’s branch would need to look beyond that in order to invite him to a very competitive Oscar race in the category. The same can be said for debut feature screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who may bubble around an adapted screenplay nomination.
The ensemble is truly impactful, all with individual bright spots that make them stand out in their own way. Glynn Turman’s Toledo is one of the emotional pillars and a performance that resonates. In a year that seems to be coalescing around veteran actors like Bill Murray and David Strathairn, the 73-year-old could get enough voters to check his name off for his first Oscar nomination. The classic star of “Cooley High” won an Emmy in 2008 for best guest actor in a drama for “In Treatment.”
Colman Domingo, Michael Potts and Taylour Paige round out the cast remarkably, which could be an easy check-off for a SAG ensemble nomination. A mention at the SAG awards will likely bring a coveted best picture nomination. If that nomination comes to fruition, Washington would be the first Black producer to be nominated twice. He was nominated for “Fences,” along with his co-producer Todd Black. Dany Wolf is also a credited producer.
The artisan races will be instrumental to its support with the Academy. Ann Roth’s costumes should factor in quite nicely, which at 89 years-old, would make her the oldest nominee ever in any category, surpassing James Ivory when he was nominated and won best adapted screenplay for 2017’s “Call Me by Your Name.”
Production designer Mark Ricker, along with set designers Diana Stoughton and Oscar-winner Karen O’Hara (“Alice in Wonderland”), has more than enough highlights to impress the branch. The sound category, now including both mixing and editing, could be an uphill climb with many musicals and big blockbusters in the running.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will be released on Netflix on Dec. 18.