MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM – Review
Chadwick Boseman’s last performance is opposite Viola Davis in a gripping drama based on August Wilson’s play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Boseman gives a fiery, heartbreaking performance in this excellent film. It is as fine, and fitting, a final performance as one could hope for from the late actor.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is set during a recording session in 1927, with blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band, including new horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman). As the band rehearses apart from the star, the conversation is wide-ranging, touching on human ambitions and the treatment of Black musicians by the white-dominated music industry in the 1920s. Meanwhile, the cagey star engages in power plays with the white recording studio manager and her own business manager, as well as her band, to stay in control of her career.
The title is actually the name of one of the songs they are recording, although there is plenty of shaking posteriors and not just by Ma. There are comic moments, lively dialog, and memorable characters but the heart of the film is realistic, thought-provoking, even challenging drama which comes to the fore as the tale unspools.
While many fans know Boseman from his star-making turn in BLACK PANTHER, the gifted actor has a string of outstanding performances in dramas, often historic ones where he portrays iconic figures such as Jackie Robinson (42) and James Brown (GET ON UP). This film fits in with that body of work, but the raw, emotional performance will grab any audience, in a serious drama that touches on the human longing and particularly the experiences of African Americans in the earlier part of the 20th century, as many of August Wilson’s powerful plays do.
This film is yet another fine screen adaption of an August Wilson play, which are noted for their skill in blending African American history and gripping personal stories. Denzel Washington serves as producer, on this beautifully-crafted, authentic period drama from director George C. Wolfe with a screenplay by Ruben Santiago and lush photography by Tobias Schliessler. It is a perfect setting for the raw, wild, intelligent and hard-hitting drama and the excellent performances the cast deliver.
As August Wilson plays often do, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM blends historical references with the characters personal stories, with references to the Great Migration of blacks from the South to the North, seeking jobs and escape from segregation, in the early 20th century, and to wild popularity of jazz and its adoption by white musicians. The play also deals with the daunting restrictions and dangers, including lynching, that all blacks faced in the 1920s. The playwright’s ability to blend frank history with charismatic, realistic characters and emotionally powerful (and equally realistic) personal stories is why he is such a legend.
Boseman and Davis actually have few scenes together, as the drama explores its subjects mostly on parallel tracks. One is focused on the young, ambitious Levee and the more jaded band members, and the other focused on the experienced star as she warily negotiates with both her white business manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and the recording studio manager Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne).
Both Boseman and Davis deliver amazing, emotional performances that while rivet audiences with gut-punching scenes laced with the playwright’s deep, spot-on, real-world observations. Davis is unrecognizable as Ma Rainey, whom she portrays as a hard, cynical performer who knows her own worth and means to stay in charge of her own career. Her seemingly temperamental behavior reveals a realistic self-protection based on past experiences with both the recording industry and the tough touring life. Rainey is sharp-witted and cunning as she maneuvers through dealings with both the white men and her band.
Rainey regards her band as back-up and largely interchangeable, but does have a special link with long-time member Cutler, who communicates her wishes to the band. For this session, she is accompanied by her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who has ambitions to be a recording star despite his stutter, and Ma’s pretty young girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) a perfect 1920s flapper, dancing through the session but with her own dreams.
Ma Rainey plays the star to the full, including arriving late. The band rehearses while waiting for her, which reveals them as an interesting, amusing assortment of characters. They are fun to watch as they tease and argue in rapid-fire colorful period patter. Coleman Domingo plays Cutler, the self-styled leader, with Boseman’s Levee and Michael Potts’ Slow Drag as more recent additions from the South.. Glynn Turman’s Toledo is the old hand, and they make up an entertaining ensemble.
There is a comic subplot with nephew who Ma Rainey wants on her record despite his stutter, a power play with the white producers. Power struggles are running theme, and not just with her, that helps drive the plot. Ma Rainey appreciates Levee’s talent but resists his efforts to shift her traditional blues style to the more modern jazz. Jazz is firing up both black and white audiences in the 1920s and ambitious Levee recognizes the economic potential, particularly in the North, to which so many southern blacks are migrating, while Rainey is happy to rely on her base of Southern black rural audiences, who love her. She has also noticed, disapprovingly, Levee’s interest in Dussie Mae.
There are moments of humor, plenty of snappy, fast-paced dialog and well-drawn charismatic characters, but the film had serious things to say underneath that, things that are sometimes hard to hear, all of which are classic August Wilson. Boseman gets to show off his considerable acting chops especially in a few searing, emotional scenes, scenes that are both heartbreaking and explosively angry. Often his adversary in these scenes is Cutler, who acts as a kind of enforcer of Ma Rainey’s wishes. Colman Domingo is the perfect foil for Boseman’s dramatic fireworks, sharpening the crackling tone. When Boseman’s Levee talks about his ambitions, he strays into childhood experiences, scenes where the actor glows red-hot and vibrates with brilliance, seizing the audience with his heartbreaking performance. Boseman is so brilliant in this role, so emotionally powerful, that it further underlines what a tragedy it is to have lost this talent so young.
This excellent adaption of a gut-punching, realistic August Wilson play is an outstanding drama as well as a showcase for two great talents, Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. It is hard to imagine a more perfect farewell to Boseman, a towering talent gone too soon.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM opens Friday, Dec. 18, in theaters.
RATING: 4 out of 4 stars