At the end of 2020, a flood of movies was released all at once and it’s time to catch up with the best. Among them, is a film based on Tony Award-winning playwright August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” starring Oscar-winner Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman in his final film performance which might very well earn him a posthumous Oscar nomination. The Boston Society of Film Critics voted the entire stellar cast BEST ENSEMBLE.
Here to review the latest cinematic incarnation of Wilson’s work is guest critic Jacquinn Sinclair whose review of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” first appeared online at WBUR’s The ARTery.
It’s clear within the first few minutes of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” that two alphas are jockeying for the spotlight: Viola Davis’ Rainey and the late Chadwick Boseman’s Levee, a cornet player in her band. The film quickly takes viewers from a tent show in Barnesville, Georgia to The Grand in Chicago where Rainey and her band are performing. As soon as there’s a pause, Levee, looking for his turn in the sun, steps into the spotlight, sparking the legendary blues singer’s anger.
In the Netflix adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson’s play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a Wilson regular onstage as actor and director, Rainey and her band head to Chicago for a one-day studio recording session. The simmering conflict between Rainey and Levee, the beauty and stress of being Black, and a love of the blues anchor the crackling narrative (available Dec. 18).
On the day of the recording in 1927, Rainey’s late to the studio much to the chagrin of her white manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos). Most of the band members show up on time except for Levee who was tardy because he was buying new shoes. While they wait for Rainey to arrive, the band sips on some “good Chicago bourbon” from Toledo’s (Glynn Turman) flask and talks trash about life, music and women, in typical Wilson style. Cutler (Colman Domingo) tries to lead the rehearsal, but Levee isn’t feeling it. Especially if the band isn’t going to rehearse his version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Much of the film’s majesty comes from George C. Wolfe’s direction and Denzel Washington and Todd Black’s production. Washington and Davis set screens ablaze in their performance of Wilson’s “Fences.” Here, Davis and Boseman both give riveting performances. Boseman’s character, marked by trauma, is furious with God and has allowed darkness to take up residence. In a tight close-up shot, Boseman’s eyes glisten and later fill with tears as he shares that his mother was attacked by a group of white men who took hold of her “like a mule” and had their way with her. Levee was young, but he tried to help his mother who pleaded with God to save her and ended up with a large scar across his chest and a deep, dark hole in his heart that threatens to swallow him up. Levee doesn’t think much of life, but death, he says, “got some style.” His roiling rage explodes as he screams up at the sky, challenging God. Boseman’s powerful performance underlines the tragedy of his early death. click here to read more