MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (NETFLIX) (2020)
SYNOPSIS: Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), her ambitious horn player (Chadwick Boseman), and the white management determined to control the legendary “Mother of the Blues.” Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson's play.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is Chadwick Boseman’s last gift to the world before his untimely demise in August last year. Although it focused primarily on influential Blues singer Ma Rainey dubbed “The Mother of the Blues”, it’s essentially a fictional film based on the late August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name not a biography on Rainey.
On a hot summer day in 1927 Chicago, a group of Jazz band members, Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) have gathered at Paramount recording studio waiting for Ma (Viola Davis) and trumpeter Levee (Boseman) to arrive for a recording session. After getting a pair of shining new leather shoes, Levee walks in brimming with pride and tells the rest he is planning to get his own record deal by coming up with his own original compositions. Ma also came in a while later with his girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown) in tow.
Sparks fly not necessarily it’s because of the excruciating heat outside or the talents assembled. Notably, everyone involved comes with a package of their own. Ma knew she has the upper hand which presumably explained why she acts like the diva. The whites want nothing from her except her voice so her request of an icy bottle of Coke is at least reasonable. Levee Green is desperate to break out of the cycle. He wants to be famous, rich and successful liked the average white. He feels Ma’s music is falling behind times, people wants music that they can dance to but Ma only wants to sing it her way.
Similar to Troy Maxson, the main protagonist in Wilson’s Fences, Levee questions the existence of God. He blames God for the plight of African-Americans. The death of his mom. Haunting criticisms of Jesus which incur the wrath of fellow colleague, Cutler. The arguments and debates between the characters are strangely relevant even a near century has passed. Dreams to achieve higher, years of hardship and perseverance, issues of racism are just some of the many themes discussed in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Boseman is the kind of actor that easily transformed himself to the any character he is playing. Although looking a bit gaunt, you can’t tell he is the same actor from Black Panther or 42 simple because he is truly magnificent as the cocky, overconfident and tormented Levee. It’s a pity Davis is overshadowed here though she puts in a solid performance with assistance from some excessive makeover. You definitely wouldn’t want to cross path with Ma in the same room.
Given the challenging material, Tobias A. Schliessler’s excellent cinematography and under theatre director George C. Wolf’s sturdy direction, the experience is a somewhat emotional, depressing insight into the history, arts and culture of Black Americans. It’s a dialogue-heavy drama peppered with the occasional tune from Ma. With the passing of Boseman and the conclusion of this soon to be award-winning Netflix drama, we are reminded of one soul-stirring line from Levee Green: “Death got some style. Death will kick your ass and make you wish you never been born. That’s how bad death is.”
Review by Linus Tee