Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom chugs along at a brisk pace. A quick draw, it’s all to the point. While not as glittery as, say, a Baz Luhrmann Great Gatsby, the sultry sepia hanging over each frame mimics not just the literal heat of a pre-air conditioned world, but also America’s northern racial tensions as the Great Migration reaches its apex.

From August Wilson’s play comes the little universe of this Chicago recording studio. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis of Fences), the “mother of the blues,” knows her rare ability of song is what gives her authority. Putting on a diva show as a way of dominating whites youths in a world shaped by Jim Crow, her trumpeter Levee (Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman) envies Ma’s success. As blues bows out and swing jazz becomes king, the power struggles from two hurricane-force personalities make landfall just as Ma’s most celebrated song struggles to be recorded. 

As American society learns to finally value historical black accomplishment, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes to Netflix at an invaluable hour. Wilson’s plays (Fences, The Piano Lesson) reached acclaim not simply for documenting the Black experience collectively, but also individual Black perspectives reacting to change. Curiously, Boseman and Davis don’t come head-to-head in as many scenes as you’d expect from top-billed stars, but their concepts of Black authority make the oncoming confrontation evermore ominous. 

Unashamedly modest in its presentations, the raves for Boseman’s final performance before his death earlier this year and Davis’ transition aren’t without merit. Davis is remarkably restrained for a character seeking to dominate, while Boseman’s naive energy in his last role morphs what a lesser actor would make dull into thrilling philosophical conflicts. 

Its second half is when Ma Rainey finds footing in its new medium. From then it’s a knockout, despite the start coming off as opening night jitters. Even then, it captures the Jazz Age without nostalgia worship. It’s 20th century optimism marred by white capitalism—as black talent shapes the culture, whites take the credit. 

If you struggle with stage-to-screen adaptations where the story sits in a single space, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom might feel an ordeal at times. Here’s some unrequested advice: when finished, sit with it. Give it a few days. For me, it became a lot more profound. 

+ A brilliant actor's showcase; fantastic pacing
– Takes a while to find its footing

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Directed by George C. Wolfe
With Davis and Boseman
Netflix, R, 94 min.