Ma Rainey's Black Bottom movie review: Chadwick Boseman’s swan song hits all the right notes
Chadwick Boseman shows just why the world will miss his talent. His death unquestionably haunts the film like a shadow.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom takes place on a hot summer afternoon in a recording studio in 1920s Chicago, where blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is set to record a couple of new songs. True to her diva nature, she keeps everyone waiting. Things heat up in her absence, with interpersonal conflicts plaguing her backing band, and her white manager trying to smooth things over with her white producer. But it is when she finally shows up with her nephew and girlfriend that the mercury levels reach their peak.
Director George C Wolfe retains the DNA of August Wilson's play, spawning a film that allows for a rapid-fire exchange of words and wits, monologues, and music. The pervading tensions match the rhythm of Ma Rainey's blues, giving an added musicality to the film. In its best moments, it feels like a period piece with a danceable beat.
The film’s most wordy but forceful moments feature Ma Rainey’s backing quartet in the rehearsal room. The young trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) can't find middle ground on anything with the band's veterans: the pragmatic trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), the carefree bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and the didactic pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman). Arguments over arrangement, style and the band's future reveal a gap in generational and artistic attitudes. Being young, Levee is a dreamer and an individualist. He hopes to sell his music to Ma Rainey’s producer and make it on his own. Toledo advises him to temper his ambitions in a world run by white men, stressing instead on their collective responsibilities towards the Black cause, on “making a better world for the coloured man.”
Turman's Toledo makes for a dramatic counterweight to Boseman's Levee. The former's minor-key grace is an antithesis to the latter's major-key fervour. The dialogue is paced in an unhurried fashion, allowing for an honest unfolding of the fears and hang-ups, hopes and dreams, of these Black artists. Their arguments are framed against the white exploitation of Black culture. Because the studios are white-owned and white-run, and they decide how much Black artists get paid. They even try to sway Ma Rainey on matters of artistic direction, appealing her to make more white-friendly, danceable music.
The racial unease that defined early 20th century is refracted through the prism of blues history. The recording studio here becomes a refuge from the racial bigotry of the world outside, and at the same time a diorama of a more insidious form of it inside. The vertical structure of the studio indicates where the characters fit into the social hierarchy. At the top is the control room occupied by the white decision makers, Ma Rainey's agent Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and her producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). At the bottom is the run-down rehearsal room where her backing band clash, and contemplate over how to live life on their own terms. In the middle is the studio, where Ma Rainey rules the roost. Although she may be above her back-up musicians on the social ladder, the white gatekeepers won't allow her to rise any further, much less treat her as an equal.
Ma Rainey may be a queen in the studio, but she has about as much sway as the next Black person in white-majority America. She knows it too. (“They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.”) All she is to the white man is a currency-printing machine. As long as her records sell, she has value. They will tolerate her demands, her disruptions, and her diva-ness. It's why she is allowed to live on her own terms. And she does. She is out and proud in the 1920s. But it gnaws at her that her voice enriches the whites, even if it also empowers the Blacks. The studio is a typical capitalist structure, where the currency of power only accumulates at the top. Insisting on a Coca Cola mid-session, demanding her nephew do the intro, and obliging them to wait are about the only ways she can exercise control. True to the spirit of blues, Davis uncovers the pain and struggle behind Ma Rainey's larger-than-life demeanour. She commits herself to showing us a woman with all of her virtues and vices intact.
Boseman shows just why the world will miss his talent, scaling a whole monologue down to a glance, dialogues down to a gesture, without losing the heart of Wilson's message.
He plays Levee in much the same way Levee plays the trumpet — not with machine-like precision but a jazz-like improvisation. Just like Levee wants to move from the background to the foreground, Boseman hoped to achieve something similar with Black narratives and the characters he embodied. The way Levee wears his pain and scars remind you of the way Boseman wore his own. His death unquestionably haunts the film like a shadow. A funereal pall hangs over each scene he inhabits, making his final performance all the more bittersweet.
There's a scene in the film, where Ma Rainey expresses her displeasure over Levee's arrangement for her songs. Levee then replies, "You're supposed to improvise on the theme." It aptly describes what Wolfe's treatment doesn’t do. The studio may trap the audience and the characters together in a single location, like in the play. But the barrier of the screen still changes the dynamic. Screen adaptations can never be as stirring as watching actors in all their heightened vulnerabilities up close on stage.
Perhaps the most cinematic moment in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom comes in its opening. Two young Black men race through the woods in the dark of night. You hear dogs barking in the background. The atmosphere resembles that of 12 Years a Slave, and a dozen other Hollywood movies of its ilk. But no. They are just in a hurry to see Ma Rainey live in concert. It perfectly captures what she meant to Black people in 1920s, and why she was referred to as "Mother of the Blues."
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is streaming on Netflix.
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