Chadwick Boseman’s final performance is a blistering, tour de force coda to his luminous career. He and co-star Viola Davis lead a superb ensemble in Netflix’s adaptation of playwright’s August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The film takes place in 1927 over the course of a tumultuous day at a steamy Chicago music studio. It is a fierce examination of racial injustice, social inequality, artistic freedom, and cultural exploitation. The songs of Ma Rainey, the legendary “Mother of the Blues”, accompanies the pugnacious narrative like a stalking tiger.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom begins with a showstopping set at a raucous club. A glistening Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) wows the audience with her powerful stage presence. As her scantily clad dancers flaunt their assets, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), her brilliant new trumpeter, steps into the spotlight for an impromptu solo. He wows the crowd while catching the eye of the fetching Dussie May (Taylour Paige). Ma Rainey is furious at this affront. She snaps the spotlight back to her, forcing Levee to return to his place with the band.
The following day, Ma Rainey’s musicians get off the train in a bustling white neighborhood. They ignore venomous stares as they make their way to the recording studio. Ma Rainey’s white manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), and record label owner, Mr. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), gives Cutler (Colman Domingo), her trombonist and bandleader, the set list for the songs to record. Cutler leads Toledo (Glynn Turman), the pianist, and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), the bassist, to the studio basement to rehearse.
The bandmates banter back and forth about the troubles of the “colored man” before being joined by Levee. Hot-headed and combative, Levee informs the group that Mr. Sturdyvant wants to record his upbeat version of the sultry blues standard, “Black Bottom.” Cutler and the boys laugh. Ma Rainey makes the decisions about what to record. When Ma Rainey arrives with Dussie May and her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), she’s irate to learn of Sturdyvant’s changes. No man, black or white, tells her what to sing or how to do it. Ma Rainey lays down the law, but starts a firestorm of conflict between Levee, her producers, and the band.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place primarily on sets that recreate the studio. There’s quite a bit of dialogue and physical interaction between the actors. Every character gets screen time due the complex nature of the plot. Ma Rainey, Levee, and her producers engage in a power struggle with uneven footing. Levee is an exceptional, promising musician, but foolishly overconfident and simmering with rage. Ma Rainey understands the racial dynamics of 1920’s America. She knows her white producers will make a fortune selling her recordings. But no one gets a penny unless she sings first.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was part of a ten play series, The Pittsburgh Cycle, by two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner August Wilson chronicling the black experience in America. George C. Wolfe, a venerated Broadway director and accomplished playwright, succeeds in bringing the multilayered story to the screen. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has a dense and elaborate plot with many moving parts. He shows great skill in letting his formidable cast inhabit their characters. Wolfe allows them to be boisterous without overacting. His editing and shot selection also capture the smaller, subtle moments with a dexterous touch. Wolfe’s talent behind the camera allows his players to be extraordinary.
Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman are Oscar worthy in every regard. Davis, who sings every song, simply astonishes as Ma Rainey. She transforms into the buxom, sweaty, heavily made-up “Mother of the Blues.” Davis commands this film like a general in battle. My heart ached watching Chadwick Boseman. His turn as Levee is magnetic, and shocking to see at times. Boseman had the innate ability to deliver raw truth and emotion. His passing is a blow to artistry that will be felt for years. Chadwick Boseman has earned every posthumous award to come. Cinema has truly lost one of its brightest stars. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a production of Mundy Lane Entertainment and Escape Artists. It will premiere globally December 18th on Netflix.
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