Starring Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts. Directed by George C. Wolfe.
There is an air of tragedy around this latest awards contender from Netflix: the final on-screen turn from Chadwick Boseman, in a film produced by mentor and friend Denzel Washington.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on the 1982 play by August Wilson, and is the second film made of his ten-play series The Century Cycle. Washington had previously directed and starred in an adaptation of Fences, and now this is the second of the ten that Washington will shepherd into production.
The film takes place over a single day in the 20s where Ma Rainey’s blues band await her arrival to record a new record. With temperatures soaring both weatherly and emotionally, Ma’s arrival rubs studio heads the wrong way, while upstart trumpeter Levee rubs everyone else the wrong way.
Even without the tragic backstory of knowing Boseman was in the midst of fighting colon cancer while performing his role, the energy and magnetism on show in his role as Levee would be impressive, but knowing it, the feat of performance he delivers is nigh on unrivalled. This is an actor at the height of his powers, building on the promise not of his Marvel monarch but of roles like James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson. These performances, along with Spike Lee’s Vietnam epic Da 5 Bloods provide ample proof that there was a career beyond screaming “Wakanda Forever!” at crowds of CGI armies; this was an actor of Denzel’s level in the making. The awards buzz is not just lamenting the death of a movie star, but the loss of a true artist.
But this is not a one-man show, this is very much an ensemble, and Boseman is up against a formidable Viola Davis as the titular Ma. She’s brassy, stern and commanding and there is no sight of the emotionally charged role she had in Fences; this is a woman of stern resolve, a Black woman with the power, and wielding it like any arrogant white man would. Davis has a career of “career-best” turns, but Ma Rainey is definitely one that deserves to be in the conversation.
Much less spoken about are the other performers such as Glunn Turman as Toledo the piano player, who’s old fashioned ways clash with Levee’s younger feelings, Taylour Paige as Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae, and Michael Potts as Slow Drag the double bass player. Of all the supporting players it might be Colman Domingo’s smooth-talking Cutler the trombone player that steals the scenes. If Boseman and Davis are in the leading performance chat, Domingo should be in the supporting. From his oft-repeated “a one, two, a you know what to do” to signal the start, to his quieter conversations with Ma, Domingo is a man who’s hunched shoulders tell you everything about a talented person designated to following orders but living for the music.
There are times that the film can’t quite escape its stage play routes, and the best efforts of director George C. Wolfe to offer some dynamic editing and camera work can’t quite escape that when it’s time for a monologue. But Wolfe and his crew give the setting a sense of space, the near golden hue of the recording studio, and the dead gray of the basement they rehearse in.
Rueben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay contains some really great dialogue, with snappy rapport between the band that shows respect and frustration, and more overt moments of honouring Wilson’s perchant for a big emotional creed; one of Boseman’s more emotional moments calls to mind Davis’ “what about my dreams?” speech from Fences.
The editing, camera work and costume design work well to tell the story without tons of historal context: you can see the flashy upstart nature of Levee through his bright yellow shoes, the more proper nature of Toledo through his three piece suit that never changes even in the heat, and even nice touches like the fact that Ma wears slippers the entire time. It’s a film made with a passion and a love and that cannot be faulted.
Even with its stagey elements at times reminding you this is a play on screen, the efforts of everyone involved offer a moving and spellbinding testament to both Boseman and to Wilson himself. It also offers a reminder that perhaps Washington himself is not the strongest director/producer, and that placing these plays in different filmmakers hands each time offers an anthology of Black voices to Wilson’s legacy. Whichever one comes next, it’s going to be one hell of a show.