2020 will be remembered as one of the worst years on record --- for reasons too numerous to list here. Too many lives were lost to Covid-19, causing great suffering. Hollywood also has had its share of losses, among them the incredibly talented Chadwick Boseman, widely known for his spectacular turn as “T’Challa” in Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER. He has other astounding stage and screen credits, but his final role as Levee in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM will forever cement his name in the annals of cinema history.
Playwright August Wilson penned a 10-play cycle giving voice to the African American experience during the 20th Century. MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM premiered on Broadway in 1984 and it is the only one of the ten based on a real person, Ma Rainey, played here with passion and fervid determination by Viola Davis. She has collaborated before with renowned Broadway director George C. Wolfe, who has masterfully made this film, set in the summer of 1927, his own.
Ma Rainey, otherwise known as “The Mother of the Blues”, has traveled to Chicago for a one-day recording session. Tagging along is her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and her lesbian lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Ma was so confident of her place in the Blues world --- and
everywhere --- that she was openly gay.
Her band, comprised of Levee, Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), has already assembled in the windowless rehearsal room. Ma is late and her white manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), is trying to keep the record producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), from canceling the session altogether.
While the musicians await the arrival of Ma and her entourage, Levee, the cornet player, regales the group with his vision of his future. He knows the world of Blues music is on the cusp of a new sound and he is ready to be a big part of the change. He believes Ma’s version of the Blues is becoming passe and Levee wants to strike out on his own. As each member begins telling their own stories, starting with Levee, the sultry Chicago afternoon explodes with tension.
Davis is truly in a class of her own --- and of her own making. She possesses a screen presence which is undeniable, and here she commands each scene with a remarkably riveting performance. Her beautiful black skin shines with the sheen of perspiration and her greasepaint makeup and spectacular costumes complete the picture of Ma that the trailblazing performer projected in person. Davis is simply and utterly magnificent.
This is one of those casts which boasts incredible talent from every single participant. Turman is especially compelling when he trades barbs with Boseman’s Levee. After a particularly fraught tete-a-tete, he purposely steps on Levee’s new yellow shoes which incites an anger in Levee that Toledo couldn’t have anticipated.
But it is Boseman who steals this movie. He’s downright electrifying every time he’s on screen. His sweet baby-faced smile can change in a heartbeat, and we wince with pain and disgust as he recounts to his bandmates the true story of what happened to his mother. Honestly, if Boseman doesn’t receive a posthumous Oscar nomination --- and win --- for this performance, it will be a travesty.
Netflix has offered several notable films this year, but MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM may have emerged as their best. With a superbly adapted screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, music by Branford Marsalis and period costumes by Ann Roth, Wolfe may expand his already impressive resume --- five Tonys --- with an Academy Award nod for Best Director.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
Despite the somewhat lurid and racist-sounding title of this film, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is neither. It actually refers to the Black Bottom Dance which originated in the South and became a national craze in the 1920s. The movie is a stunning adaptation of the late playwright August Wilson’s Broadway show which premiered in 1984. Wilson was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for two other plays he wrote, including “Fences”.
Acclaimed director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have collaborated here with actors Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman on a film that will surely rank as one of the best of 2020. Wolfe’s resume, largely based on his Broadway successes, is astoundingly impressive. Called “incomparable” by Denzel Washington, Wolfe has been nominated 15 times for Tony Awards, winning five of them.
Co-produced by FENCES star Washington, a long-time Boseman mentor, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is set in 1927 Chicago but filmed in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh. Although the movie showcases blues singer Ma Rainey who died in 1936 in her native Georgia, the deeper focus is on her fictitious band in a recording studio, featuring Boseman as the talented cornet player, Levee, who dreams of having his own group one day.
In this his final role, Boseman’s performance demonstrates what a huge talent he was --- his fans already know this --- and how much he will be missed. There is a distinct probability that Boseman will be recognized by Oscar voters posthumously for a Best Actor nom. If that happens Boseman will join the likes of James Dean (twice), Peter Finch (who won) and Spencer Tracy.
Boseman’s turn in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is frequently explosive, even terrifying. We never know what to expect from Levee. After extended banter with his bandmates pauses briefly, Levee relates his experience as an eight-year-old boy who witnessed his mother’s gang rape by “eight or nine white men” --- he calls them “crackers”. His somber manner shocks his friends into silence made even more devastating by further revelations about attempts at revenge by his father and himself. The new yellow shoes he just purchased don’t seem so important anymore --- although they will be a factor later as Levee’s dreams begin to shatter.
Davis’ Ma Rainey --- aka “The Mother of the Blues” --- is another in a long line of incredible performances in her film and stage career. Rainey has been described as essentially taking no s*** from anybody, always standing up for her beliefs. Adorned with strategically placed gold teeth, intentionally sloppy makeup and quite a few additional pounds, Davis is a holy terror as her character defies both her frantic manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), and the miserly record producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). Both men are white and exemplify the power differential in Black and white America. When things go awry during the sessions, Shamos and Sturdyvant excel as the thorns in Ma’s side.
Ma also has a problem with Levee if he doesn’t blow his horn in the manner she insists. And Ma frequently threatens to leave Chicago to return to her roots in Georgia, but never acts on it because she realizes the money lies with her record deal up north in the Windy City.
Though Davis and Boseman share equal billing above the title, it’s conceivable that Davis’ role will be considered supporting --- usually determined by the studio for awards purposes --- instead of a lead. Either way her turn in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is Oscar-worthy. And Viola’s take on Wilson’s creation of Levee is quite magnanimous: “I think it’s one of the greatest — if not the greatest — role for an African American actor in history”.
Director Wolfe has infused his film with music by Grammy winner Branford Marsalis and a superb supporting cast. Levee’s band mates are Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). All three are given plenty to do and say by Santiago-Hudson so we get to know them as individual characters quite well. Along with Levee this quartet of actors provides plenty of entertainment, projecting the wit and wisdom of Wilson’s writing.
Ma has a girlfriend named Dussie Mae played by the beautiful Taylour Paige. In a small role, Paige’s character is sneaky and sly --- and lights up the screen whenever she appears. In real life Ma Rainey preferred women at a time when such conduct was kept under wraps. Dussie also catches the eye of Levee to further complicate matters. The last major supporting role is turned in by 19-year-old Dusan Brown as Ma’s nephew Sylvester. He has been assigned the task of introducing the band on the recording. And although he stutters badly, he makes it through unscathed --- after seven takes --- much to everyone’s relief.
To support Boseman’s desire for extreme realism, Marsalis set up a finger chart so Chadwick could replicate a real musician playing the cornet. Marsalis then suggested Boseman research the legendary Louis Armstrong’s style because he played in Ma Rainey’s band back in the day.
With an abundance of talent both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM does not waste a moment in portraying the struggles of even the most capable Black folks in a white man’s world. I found myself hanging on every word of dialogue. Most importantly, the extraordinary performances rendered by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman are reason enough to highly recommend this film.
Available on Netflix December 18th.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!