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Non-Review Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Perhaps Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom offers an illustration of how times have changed.

The film exists as part of the same production deal that brought Fences to cinemas just four years ago. Denzel Washington signed a deal with HBO to produce screen adaptations of all ten of August Wilson’s plays, bringing one of America’s core dramatists to as wide an audience as possible with the highest quality production. Even without that specific context, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels like a companion piece to Fences; they are both films adapting Wilson, produced by Washington and starring Viola Davis.

A play of note…

However, while Fences was a major theatrical release distributed by Paramount, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has gone direct to Netflix. While the film will have a limited theatrical run where that is possible, it will primarily stream online. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is still a lavish production with a top tier cast working from strong material. However, as with the release of The Boys in the Band on Netflix earlier in this awards season, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom illustrates that even in the four years since Fences, the market for these sorts of productions has migrated to streaming.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the sort of clean and uncluttered performance-driven adult-skewing film that might have enjoyed a wide release in years past, but now it seems impossible to imagine the film anywhere but on a service like Netflix.

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Non-Review Review: Fences

Fences is a superb play, with a great cast, that makes for a reasonably solid film.

Fences was adapted by playwright August Wilson from his 1983 Pulitzer-Prize-winning stage play. Although Wilson passed away in 2005, the resulting film is very faithful to that stage-bound sensitivity. Perhaps out of respect for the writer, or out of respect for the story’s origin on the stage, director Denzel Washington never really pushes Fences beyond its source material. Fences has a superb A-list cast, but it never quite feels like a feature film adaptation.

Living life to the Maxson.

Living life to the Maxson.

Instead, Fences feels like it is trapped somewhere in the limbo between stage and screen, feeling like one of those adaptations from the earliest days of television when the medium never knew exactly where it fell between those two pillars. Fences retains a tight cast and a very fixed location, much like the stage play. It retains monologues and confrontations that play out over extended scenes that recall theatre rather than taking advantage of cinema’s ability to let time lapse.

To be fair, the cast superb and the source material is impressive. It is easy to understand why Washington adopted such a reverent and respectful approach to the cinematic adaptation. However, Fences never feels like anything more than the sum of its very impressive parts. In fact, it might feel like a little less.

Mending fences.

Tightly-knit family unit.

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