Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Chadwick Boseman’s Final, Brilliant Performance

 

Viola Davis
David Lee / Netflix

From left: Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Viola Davis, Michael Potts and Glynn Turman in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

 

Oscar winner Viola (Fences) Davis projects the indomitable pride and hard-won self-worth of the legendary blues singer named in the title of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, one of 10 plays that comprise August Wilson’s epic cycle depicting 100 years of African American experience.

Trimmed in the screenplay by Wilson interpreter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the adaptation is a tight 90-minute distillation, lacking Wilson’s monologues.

But it remains a uniquely powerful reflection on the struggle for dignity of Black Americans during the Great Northward Migration.

The film is shot by Tobias A. Schliessler in burnished tones that fit the mood of jazz age Chicago on a hot afternoon circa 1927.

Only a few scenes are set outside the recording studio and rehearsal room where the entire play takes place.

When first seen, Ma Rainey’s face caked in runny makeup, goopy false eyelashes and crooked gold teeth, strutting her stuff in a Georgia tent show while an audience of all ages, male and female, claps and cheers and calls out responses to her saucy delivery and earthy sensuality. “I’m on my way, crazy as I can be,” she sings, as Wolfe cuts to a montage of newspaper headlines like “Bound for the Promised Land,” accompanied by evocative images of the Black Migration.

Ma’s young girlfriend Dussie Mae (Zola actress Taylour Paige) dances with abandon, exchanging glances with horn player Levee (Boseman), flirtation that doesn’t escape the attention of bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone.

When Levee steps forward for his trumpet solo, Ma wastes no time snatching the spotlight back on herself, indicating there’s only room for one star.

In Davis’ interpretation, Ma Rainey is an imperious woman of extravagant appetites, clothed in luxuriantly hued velvets and flashy jewelry. She’s also fiercely defiant about her sexuality, parading Dussie Mae around as her girl.

Ma takes pride in her status as the “Mother of the Blues” and is dismissive of imitators or inventors, like Levee, who want to update her unornamented vocals with the increasingly more popular syncopated jazz sound in the north.

She is swaggering with bravado through the lobby of the Black hotel with Dussie Mae on one arm and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) on the other.

Davis gives a dominant performance, yet under Wolfe’s sensitive direction, she allows for every character in the ensemble to shine with equal clarity.

Wolfe understands the unique nature of Wilson’s language, its unmatched ability to turn the everyday speech of Black Americans into lyrical poetry.

Ma’s diva reputation has white record company owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) anticipating trouble even before the singer shows up late for a Chicago recording session, while her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) nervously reassures him it’s under control. Cutler arrives on time with pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), who set up in the basement rehearsal room to go over the song list. Levee’s indifference to punctuality, stopping en route to blow a week’s pay on a sharp pair of shoes, suggests he already sees himself as the new star.

During one of many holdups, Ma reflects on the blues and how white people don’t get: “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”

Rhe exchanges among the band in the rehearsal room highligh the themes of racism, identity, Black struggle and artistic ambition. The characters are full-blooded, richly individualized men who talk as “a way of understanding life,” just like the blues.

One of the chief conflicts is between old-timer Toledo, who believes Black folks spend too much time in pursuit of pleasure, and temperamental Levee, who believes he’s owed everything life offers. His side dealings with Sturdyvant to record his compositions and his aim to start his own band set him apart from the others.

It’s Levee’s claim that he knows “how to handle the white man,” that he won’t be brought down by racism, that makes him the central figure of tragedy and pathos. His account of witnessing as a boy horrific attack on his mother reflects his resentment as well as unbridled ambition.

The betrayal of the American Dream is shared by all the characters, including Ma, despite her success, but it cuts the deepest in self-destructive Levee.

Denzel Washington, who serves as producer, has said that it was his life’s main goal to make big-screen versions of all ten plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle, and this is certainly a step in the right direction.

Like the film of FencesMa Rainey’s Black Bottom is too theatrical, but watching actors of such high caliber, fully invested in the richly textured characters, makes up for above shortcoming

Boseman’s towering work here stands as testament to a blazing talent lost too soon; he was only 43 at his death.

Credits:

Production: Mundy Lane Entertainment, Escape Artists
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown, Joshua Harto, Quinn VanAntwerp
Director: George C. Wolfe
Screenwriters: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on play by August Wilson
Producers: Denzel Washington, Todd Black, Dany Wolf
Executive producer: Constanza Romero
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler

Production designer: Mark Ricker
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Music: Branford Marsalis
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Rated R

Running time: 94 minutes