As one of America’s most respected playwrights, most people know this one August WilsonThe popular piece “fences. ” Viola Davis and Denzel Washington (Alumni of Wilson’s theater work), starred in this 2018 film. “Ma Rainey’s black bottom“Another piece in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle series is being adapted by the director George C. Wolfe.
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The experience of blacks in America during the twentieth century has often been the subject of much of Wilson’s work without apology, to do justice to this population group. At the heart of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” are rhythm and blues and how music exposes the characters’ vulnerabilities and how they deal with this harsh exposure under the heel of white supremacy.
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“Ma Rainey” begins in the 1920s with a montage of various performances by the Queen of the Blues Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Immediately the tension between Rainey and one of her spirited band members Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in its final screen performance) is noticeable. The ambitious dike wants what it already has: the spotlight. It is planned that they will record an album of songs in a studio in Chicago by the penny pinching Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). Session musician Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow drag (Michael Potts) and Toledo (Glynn Turman) appear first to practice as Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), Ma Rainey’s manager, eagerly awaits her late arrival. Levee pops up and slows things down, things start to unravel before they start recording music.
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Slow drag plays bass and just wants to get ready and go home. Toledo plays the piano and speaks philosophically about race in America and how no one cares about blacks. Trombonist Cutler is a religious man who remains loyal to Ma Rainey and does his best to keep the peace. Levee doesn’t play well with others and does his best to rattle the group as he exclaims that he is on his way to success and she or anyone else is not. As soon as Ma Rainey shows up, all hell breaks loose as she and Levee battle for the title of greatest diva in the room. It seems weird until you remember that it is a piece by August Wilson in which there is always a character who reveals a greater truth in the play’s early turning point. You have to listen carefully, lean in or you will miss it.
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Everything depends on the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. The song creates so much tension and division within this small group of people that it is the clear antagonist of the story, not Ma Rainey or anyone else. Ma Rainey is not at all likeable. However, in a scene with Colman Domingo, she explains why. For her, music is real life, so she channels all of her thoughts and feelings into it. “You will treat me the way I would like to be treated. Once they get what they want from me, I won’t care. “The message is clear: as a black woman in the 1920s you have to be aggressive and tough to survive. Once white patriarchy gets what it wants from you, you have no value – so you can do things right now enjoy just as well.
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Levee shares the same success or try-to-die characteristics as Rainey
is exactly why they collide. The difference, Ma Rainey has the success Levee
wants, but he trusts the (white controlled) system too much while claiming he
knows exactly how to maneuver those responsible to get what he wants. If you are
Black, this way of thinking is dangerous.
The characters lead the story from one plot point to another. Each character is strong and plays a complicated role in the ensemble, no matter how large or minimal the role is. A hallmark of August Wilson’s work is the cracking of dialogue exchanges, and there are very few pauses in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. By listening and observing, the brain works quickly to catch up. It flows so naturally to be a viewer feels like an encroachment. This can be traced back to Wilson’s innate understanding of the black experience in America. The mannerisms, the tone, AAVE (African American Vernacular English) of the time – he knows how to tailor this to a black audience while making the parts digestible enough for everyone else.
Director George C. Wolfe does this in equal parts cinematically and in equal parts on stage. Wolfe is a playwright and theater director, and his expertise helps him block, stage, and move. He clearly does not want the viewer to forget that we are watching a piece. The composition of each scene is superbly framed and gives the audience an intimate glimpse into this ensemble cast, which complement each other with unparalleled chemistry.
Viola Davis has never shied away from improbable roles, and with “Ma Rainey” she bends forward again. With a dose of extravagance and camp, Davis may be sassy, but she’s having fun and her appearances are jumping off the screen. Domingo is mature enough to be a leader. He has had a number of supporting roles in which he exceeded expectations and this film is no exception. Domingo shines with leading male qualities, so it’s time for Hollywood to cast him accordingly. In the last film role before his death, Boseman is exceptional as Levee. He brings the drama, the trauma, and is the heart of the story. His energy is powerful, undeniable and his dedication to cinema will never be forgotten.
“Ma Rainey’s black bum” is dark, as are many of August Wilson’s stories. But being black in America is serious and often unforgiving business. Constantly navigating a system that you hates puts a heavy strain on the mind, and this psychological burden is what “Ma Rainey” best channels throughout the film and during the soulful, painful performances. “Ma Rainey” uses blues music as a means of expression because she knows that it is not just about music, but an instrument of survival – a means of tolerating daily life under white oppression. Dynamic, vibrant and flamboyant, “Ma Rainey” will hopefully not only rekindle interest in Wilson’s work, but also serve as a reminder that “Fences” aren’t the only fireworks that exist in his insightful arsenal. [B+]
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will be out on Netflix on December 18th.
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