Currently in theaters and streams on Netflix this Friday Dec. 18.
Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is a famous blues singer who tours the country with her band – Cutler (Colman Domingo), Levee (Chadwick Boseman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Toledo (Glynn Turman). During a recording session on the South Side of Chicago, Ma is a difficult diva making demands of white management --Sturdyvant (Johnny Coyne) and Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), while there is also friction in the band. Ma wants things done her way. In this film adaptation of August Wilson’s acclaimed 1982 play in his “American Century Cycle,” racism and exploitation intensify during an already tense summer afternoon.
In his final screen performance, Chadwick Boseman will break your heart all over again. And as trumpet player Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” he will likely score his first Oscar nomination. But it won’t be a posthumous gesture without merit – he delivers a ferocious awards-worthy portrait of a talented musician and composer used and abused by the 1920s entertainment hierarchy.
Although Boseman tragically died of colon cancer on Aug, 28 at age 34, I talk about him here in the present tense --- for his work is so dynamic, projecting the vitality that was inherent to his being, but delving into the joy, pain and anger of the character.
In this August Wilson adaptation, Levee encapsulates many sides of a young black man trying to find his place in the world. Swaggering in a pair of dandy new yellow shoes, the brash Levee is flush with talent and ambition. He’s not content with the same old arrangements that the 4-man combo plays, and he wants to show off more of what he can do. He writes music focusing on contemporary tastes and thinks it will sell.
That doesn’t fly with Ma, an old-school blues singer who has seen it all, scratched and clawed for everything she has achieved, wants the world to know it and is not about to put up with any insurrection or disrespect.
The real Ma Rainey, who died in 1939, was a trailblazing entertainer known as “Mother of the Blues,” who started on the vaudeville, minstrel and cabaret circuit. She recorded 100 songs in five years at Paramount Records. Ma, who died in 1939, is in both the Blues Foundation’ Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her influence on the more famous Bessie Smith and other blues singers is well-documented, although her star faded. “Black Bottom” was a short-lived dance craze during the height of her popularity.
But back then, black songwriters were not financially compensated like they should have been, often taken advantage of, giving up their song rights.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was the first of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” to be produced on Broadway, although the play “Jitney” came first, in 1978. Also known as the “American Century Cycle,” Wilson’s 10 plays take place in every decade of the 20th century and explore the African American experience. “Ma Rainey’s” is the only one that takes place outside of Pittsburgh. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” and multiple Tony Awards. Denzel Washington, who produced this film, has vowed to make a film from each of the 10 plays.
Viola Davis is a firecracker as Ma, who is getting on in years but not about to yield to new ideas. She’s entrenched in her way of doing things and getting results.
Davis, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Wilson’s “Fences” in 2016, depicts the bawdy bisexual Ma as a domineering force not to be crossed. Adorned in the wigs, flashy outfits and jewelry Ma was known for, Davis sashays and dishes sass in a riveting way. Fiery and flashy, she insists her demands will be met and she will not be dismissed by her exasperated manager Irvin or the owner of the studio, Sturdyvant.
While the band waits for her entrance or for some issue to be resolved, they’re stuck in a small rehearsal studio room, and tempers flare. All accomplished stage actors, the ensemble is one of this year’s finest. Colman Domingo is the born leader Cutler, smooth and steady, disapproving of Levee’s cockiness and trying to keep everyone in harmony. Michael Potts philosophizes as Slow Drag and Glynn Turman is the kind Toledo, just trying to eke out a living doing what he loves. They all take their shots at the frisky Levee and his grand desires, and for berating their old-timey attitudes.
When Boseman lets loose, telling the band about his childhood, it is a tour de force unleashing an unforgettable torrent of pain and anguish – until another explosive scene will leave audiences gasping.
Because the source material is a play, screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson sticks primarily to that structure, although when the scenes are opened up, they are revealing, not just add-ons. He also has not softened the language, and the use of the “N” word between the band is prevalent.
Production Designer Mark Ricker has succinctly captured the period while the legendary costume designer Ann Roth has projected the right style.
Composer Branford Marsalis has punctuated the proceedings with an excellent score defining the decade and the genre.
A two-time Tony winner for “Angels in America” and “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk,” Director George C. Wolfe understands that Wilson’s material is timeless, a window into people defying the limitations society has set on them. He presents this powerful play as a truth that can fit today’s challenges.BroadwayCares.org/TheProm