Thursday, December 24, 2020

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: Movie Review

Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman’s fight to the end.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has big themes but told in such a small and intimate way, and that paradox, for some (myself included) will feel lacking, not wholly satisfying, despite a very compelling movie with some very powerful performances. August Wilson’s stage play from 1982 is brought to life by Viola Davis as the trailblazing Ma Rainey and the late Chadwick Boseman in his tragically final and finest work.   2020

Directed by: George C. Wolfe

Screenplay by: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Based on the play by August Wilson

Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman

It is very theatrical. It only takes a few minutes in before you realize the entirety of the movie is contained within real time in one recording studio in 1927 Chicago. And, oh, the dialogue. Chadwick Boseman’s Levee is a fast-talking, angry and arrogant young trumpet player who is convinced he’s on the precipice of stardom despite being at the beck and call of White producers and managers and having already experienced racial tragedy in his few years on Earth.

Chadwick Boseman ("Levee"), Dusan Brown ("Sylvester"), Colman Domingo ("Cutler"), Michael Potts ("Slow Drag"), Viola Davis ("Ma Rainey"), Glynn Turman ("Toldeo") in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Images courtesy of Netflix.

While the musicians await the arrival of Ma Rainey - the big, brash, bold blues singer, regarded as the Mother of the Blues – we’re treated to Levee spouting off on all topics from shoes, to the future of Blues, to what White people want in music, to how Black people should respond to the White man. His fellow Black artists mostly disagree but they know better than trying to argue against Levee. After all, they are here for Ma Rainey, to play her music; they feel they respect their position in life, Levee does not.

One of the main themes is how individual responses to White people is unique to each Black experience. Ma is going to stand her ground. As she says, they don’t care about her, they only want her voice. So she’s under no illusion that they are going to treat her fairly, she’s going to fight for everything she wants – including getting her nephew to narrate the song’s opening even though he has a stuttering problem. Levee is going to play the White man’s game to convince them to give him what he wants. The others just want to do their job, get paid, and keep out of trouble.

There are so many Black experiences touched upon in this film that it’s hard to believe they even attempted to fit it all in an hour and a half. The plot – recording Ma’s famous title song – then spins out of control into a tale of life and death, and the audience is left shaken on the sidelines. Viola Davis, underneath an extra 30 pounds, and fake gold teeth, and dark circles around her eyes, is tired from her fight but gives Ma Rainey the necessary gravitas she deserves. I have no other words that this is how we say goodbye to Chadwick Boseman but Levee fought against himself and every other person on that stage until he had nothing left to give.