Synopsis – Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues”. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play.
My Take – Why is that actors with immeasurable talent receive their due appreciation only after death, and not much consideration when they are all up and running? Especially when their last film comes to count. Probably knowing that the effort put in has become their ultimate swan song just doubles down on the emotion.
But, in my opinion, that would have not been the case for this latest Netflix film which sees the late Chadwick Boseman giving everything to his brilliant performance, a performance which is pretty much guaranteed to swipe all the acting nods in the upcoming awards season, irrespective of his passing.
Based on a stage play that bowed on Broadway 36 years ago, this film is the second film adaptation of the late playwright August Wilson, after the excellent Fences (2016) and is once again produced by Denzel Washington, who has made it his personal mission to adapt all 10 of Wilson’s plays into films, however, this time around hands over the directing duties to George C. Wolfe (You’re Not You) and screen adapting to Ruben Santiago-Hudson (best known for playing Captain Roy Montgomery in ABC‘s Castle).
Resulting in a great but tricky stage work that has probably become even more exciting on celluloid. Though Fences had multiple locations, this film is pretty much set in one location, just shifts between multiple rooms of a sound studio and is soaked in play-like monologues, which despite having the risk of running a bit slow, never loses momentum.
Though I had no prior knowledge about Ma Rainey, the groundbreaking Black singer known as Mother of the Blues or pretty much due to my low interest in jazz music, the performances along with the dynamics and topics are so well thought out here that I remained completely engaged for its blazing 94 minutes. Trust me, you’d be hard-pressed to find better performances this year than those given by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in this Oscar buzz filled adaption.
Set in 1927 and taking place over the course of one afternoon in a sweltering Chicago recording studio which has seen better days, the story follows Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), who along with her jazz/blues band has left their comfortable surroundings of Georgia and come to the city to record a new album. While she and her entourage are painfully late, much to the dismay of her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), it also gives the veteran band members Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) some extra time to rehearse in a cramped anteroom.
That is until, their youngest member, Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman), arrives with his mouth spewing aura, making the small quarters seem even tighter. Being an ambitious trumpet player, Levee is determined to modernize the sound of Ma’s music, and is trying to convince white record producer Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) to also buy his own version of the songs, which runs afoul everyone.
And when Ma finally arrives, with her much younger girlfriend Dussie (Taylour Paige) and her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), tensions begin to boil over. It’s soon clear that, whether the songs get recorded or not, the day isn’t going to end well. It’s impossible to imagine who will suffer for the gathering tensions.
Being set in 1920s, the subjects of race, prejudice, and exploitation sit at the story’s forefront. The film speaks to the Black condition in America both then and now. It also offers commentary on cultural appropriation and the erasure of Black artists from Black art forms. It raises the question of how Black people can reclaim the aspects of culture that whiteness has stolen from them.
As evident in the Denzel Washington directed Fences, in Wilson’s dramas the plot is secondary to language, as the film is packed with entertaining banter between the band members but also with heartfelt, gut-wrenching, shocking monologues that deeply explore a character’s past and personality.
Director Wolfe, who doesn’t try to underplay the material’s theatrical roots, gives us a few tone-setting performance scenes. Toledo, in particular, frets over the general state of Black society. Ruben Santiago Hudson‘s screenplay is very dialogue heavy and reveals a lot about each character, especially Levee, as the film goes on.
The film also explores the psyche behind Ma Rainey. In the sense it makes it abundantly clear that she is not the sort of person anyone should be foolish enough to ridicule. She doesn’t merely throws around weight but stakes claim to her very dignity. Once the studio has what they need, she knows, they won’t care about her. And so, when the ice-cold Coke she requires is forgotten, she won’t budge until it comes.
Hence it also makes sense when she sees Levee as a threat not only to her style of performing, but also to her authority. To make it worse, she senses he has eyes on her young girlfriend. But Levee isn’t just a brash troublemaker. Behind the bluster is a deep well of pain, which we come to understand through several devastating tour-de-force monologues that hark back to past demons, and hint at future tragedy, which when reveals hits hard.
Despite being primarily set in two locations, the production design is very strong and the costumes to go with it make it feel like the 1920s. Jazz/blues music isn’t my thing, but I found the moments where we did get some tunes it was enjoyable to listen to. It was a main part of the story, so viewers of the film had no choice but to get what was there.
The only flaws I could point out were as a result of its short run time of just 94 minutes, as this was the kind of film that could have easily gone longer without any trouble. I personally felt they could have explored more of the story in Georgia. Plus more information of the band’s lives could have made for a stronger case for their motivation at the sound studio.
That being said, this is a play so it makes sense the director followed what was in the play. Director Wolfe and Santiago Hudson probably didn’t want to expand on characters if Wilson didn’t do it himself in the play.
In think it is safe to say that Chadwick Boseman does deliver his career best performance here, and is sure to pick up a tons of awards posthumously. From his impeccable accent to his mind-blowing emotional range, speaking through long monologues and uncut takes effortlessly, Boseman is the strong glue that holds everything in place.
Even though Boseman is the actor that shines brighter, Viola Davis too shares the spotlight with transformative performance. Here, Davis tackles every single line of hers with brutal intensity and extreme expressiveness, constantly offering 200% of her energy. Her scene where she savors Coca-Cola is worth an award itself.
The supporting cast, comprising of Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige and Dusan Brown, are entirely excellent too. On the whole, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is an enduring and relevant drama uplifted by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman‘s award worthy performances.
Directed – George C. Wolfe
Rated – R
Run Time – 94 minutes