Chadwick Boseman’s final performance is a glowing tour de force coda for his illustrious career. He and co-star Viola Davis lead a stellar ensemble in Netflix’s adaptation of August Wilson’s playwright Ma Rainey’s black bottom. The film is set on a turbulent day in a steamy Chicago music studio in 1927. It’s a vigorous investigation into racial injustice, social inequality, artistic freedom and cultural exploitation. The songs of Ma Rainey, the legendary “mother of the blues”, accompany the fighting story like a stalking tiger.
Ma Rainey’s black bottom starts with a show stop in a noisy club. A glittering Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) delights the audience with her powerful stage presence. While her scantily clad dancers flaunt their fortunes, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), their brilliant new trumpeter, step into the spotlight for a spontaneous solo. He wows the crowd while catching the eye of fetching Dussie May (Taylour Paige). Ma Rainey is furious at the affront. She turns back the spotlight, forcing Levee to return to his seat with the band.
The next day, Ma Rainey’s musicians get off the train in a busy white neighborhood. They ignore venomous looks as they go to the recording studio. Ma Rainey’s white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and record label owner Mr. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) give Cutler (Colman Domingo), her trombonist and bandleader, the set list for the songs that will be recorded should. Cutler leads Toledo (Glynn Turman), the pianist, and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), the bassist, to rehearsal in the studio’s basement.
The bandmates joke back and forth about the problems of the “colored man” before being accompanied by Levee. Hot-headed and combative, Levee informs the group that Mr. Sturdyvant wants to record his optimistic version of the sultry blues standard “Black Bottom”. Cutler and the boys laugh. Ma Rainey makes the decision about what to include. When Ma Rainey arrives with Dussie May and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), she is furious to learn of Sturdyvan’s changes. No man, black or white, tells her what to sing or how to do it. Ma Rainey makes the law, but sets off a firestorm between Levee, her producers and the band.
Ma Rainey’s black bottom mainly takes place on sets that the studio recreates. There is quite a bit of dialogue and physical interaction between the actors. Each character is given screen time due to the complexity of the plot. Ma Rainey, Levee and their producers are fighting an unequal power struggle. Levee is an exceptional, promising musician, but foolishly too confident and seething with anger. Ma Rainey understands the racial dynamics of 1920s America. She knows her white producers will make a fortune selling her recordings. But nobody gets a penny if she doesn’t sing first.
Ma Rainey’s black bottom was part of a ten-game series, The Pittsburgh Cycle, written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson, who recorded the black experience in America. George C. Wolfe, a revered Broadway director and accomplished playwright, succeeds in bringing the complex story onto the screen. Ma Rainey’s black bottom has a dense and elaborate storyline with many moving parts. He shows great skill in letting his formidable cast inhabit their characters. Wolfe allows them to be boisterous without exaggerating. His editing and selection of shots capture even the smaller, subtle moments with a skillful touch. Wolfe’s talent behind the camera enables his players to be exceptional.
Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman are Oscar-worthy in every way. Davis, who sings every song, simply surprises 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 to watch Chadwick Boseman. Its turn as a levee is magnetic and at times shocking to see. Boseman had an innate ability to deliver raw truth and emotion. His death is a blow to art that will be felt for years. Chadwick Boseman has received every other posthumous award. Cinema really has lost one of its brightest stars. Ma Rainey’s black bottom is a production by Mundy Lane Entertainment and Escape Artists. It will premiere worldwide on December 18th on Netflix.
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