Screen Gems

This Oscar weekend, join us for battle of the divas. Part I: Meet ‘Ma Rainey’

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Untold: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

One of the best films of 2020, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom scored several Oscar nods this season, including Leading Actor nominations for stars Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. Will they take home the top honors? Do they deserve to? Watch and see…

In the film, Davis plays Ma Rainey, the real-life queer singer who popularized blues as a musical genre. Boseman plays Levee, Rainey’s trumpet player with an ambition for musical glory…and who also develops an eye for Rainey’s girlfriend (Taylour Paige). Leave it to George Wolfe, the openly-gay director of the original Broadway production of Angels in America to get spellbinding performances out of his cast, and to retain the majesty of playwright August Wilson’s dialogue. The supporting cast—including gay actor Colman Domingo (Fear the Walking Dead) all turn in strong work as well.

As an actress, Viola Davis might be the only name that deserves mentioning alongside Meryl Streep and Glenn Close as the Greatest Living American Actresses. She brings her usual ferocity to Ma Rainey, by turns making her funny, demanding, unapologetic, and self-destructive. Boseman rises to meet her every step of the way, giving the performance of his career. Watching him deliver one of August Wilson’s most iconic monologues about cursing God takes on an eerie meta-meaning: a gaunt Boseman, who hid his cancer during filming, had reached the height of his career, and knew he wouldn’t be around much longer to enjoy it. It’s equal parts thrilling and tragic to watch.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom revives a near-forgotten queer, African-American heroine. That alone would make the film worth watching. That it also features two incredible actors at the height of their power makes it into something of a classic: a goose-bump-inducing master class in dramatic fury. Davis makes an outstanding case for a Best Actress win against fellow diva Andra Day, while Boseman gives the performance of the year.

In other words, don’t miss it.

Streams on Netflix.