MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM ½
2020, R, 94 mins.
Viola Davis as Ma Rainey / Chadwick Boseman as Levee / Glynn Turman as Toledo / Colman Domingo as Cutler / Michael Potts as Slow Drag / Jonny Coyne as Sturdyvant / Taylour Paige as Dussie Mae / Jeremy Shamos as Irvin / Dusan Brown as SylvesterDirected by George C. Wolfe / Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Netflix's MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM - based on the 1982 August Wilson play - is set in Chicago of the Roaring Twenties and deals with black musicians trying to make names for themselves in a largely white controlled industry that wanted to use their music to make quick cash, even if it meant crudely exploiting them.
definitely something disturbing at play here when it comes to how these businessman yearned to claim an essential part of African American culture
- Jazz and Blues - as their own, but MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM also digs
deeper than that in joyously celebrating the endlessly talented black
performers that includes, yes, the titular and iconic blues singer from the decade in question. As a complete package in dealing with the history of music,
racism, exploitation, and a greater appreciation piece of the music
contained within, MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM paints a most fascinating - and
timely - portrait of strife and fighting for what's rightfully yours.
Denzel Washington as part of a larger 10 movie deal signed in 2013 (which
included his Oscar nominated FENCES - also
penned by August, incidentally - from a few years ago) and directed with
great flair and a sensitive eye by George C. Wolfe (ANGELS IN AMERICA), MA
RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM essentially tells two stories for the price of one.
The main thrust of the narrative involves the escalating tensions
that begin to really boil over during an afternoon recording session in
1920's Chicago, with one group of musicians eagerly - and somewhat
impatiently - waiting for the arrival the legendary "Mother of
Blues" herself in Rainey (Viola Davies).
The opening sequence of the film set before this introduces us to
Rainey's unique on stage magnetism as we see her hypnotize audiences at a
concert in Georgia. It's a
tour de force bit of musical showmanship for the acclaimed singer, which
also does a superb job of cementing what kind of ferociously independent
minded, take no prisoners artist she was that wouldn't take any crap from
any man. This builds to her
stress-laden journey to Chicago for the aforementioned recording sessions. It doesn't start well with her arrival, which begins with a
massive car accident right outside of the studios, making her late and
frustrating not only her white manager and producing partners, but the
larger group of other black artists that have been waiting...and
waiting...and waiting for her arrival.
The other subplot
in question delves into the tight and tenuous dynamic that exists within
this band, which includes the trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist
Slow Drag (Michael Potts), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), and the hot headed
and impulsive trumpeter Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman, in his last
screen performance). A
majority of the film transpires within the tight, hot and
semi-claustrophobic studio, which sort of fuels the tensions as the day
moves on and Rainey herself becomes a tardy presence.
In the initial stages we see these men engage in all sorts of
frivolous banter, which later begins to segue into darker matters
involving their art and even the larger hemisphere of religion and
societal racism at large. The
more seasoned members of the group seem ready and willing to perform when
called upon when Rainey arrives, but Levee is easily the more troubling
and impatient soul, who can't wait to venture out on his own and introduce
the world to his impeccable solo talent.
As the long day only gets longer, the stresses of waiting for
Rainey - and dealing with her diva-like requests - start to weigh heavily on the men,
which boils over in surprisingly damaging ways.
multiple power struggles at play in MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, the first of
which involves Rainey's steadfast unwillingness to relinquish creative
control of her music to white men, not to mention all of her stubbornly
obsessive requests of them during the recording sessions (everything from
having soda pop given to her at the snap of her fingers or insisting on
having her stuttering nephew perform on the track, the latter request
being greeted with dismay from the band and producer alike).
The other power struggle is between the bandmates themselves, which
has more fuel added to the fire when their carefree conversations start to
morph into dissections of the darker underbelly of living as a black
person in early 20th Century America.
It's at these stages of MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM that its theater
roots start to shine through in allowing for various characters to engage
in heated and passionate monologues about all of their hopes, aspirations,
and anxieties in a world that frankly doesn't give a damn about them.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson's script adaptation really shines and becomes
the star during these sections, which paints a hauntingly tragic portrait
of the painful survival stories of these men and Rainey alongside their
current struggles with these producers to make their music felt and heard.
Of course, the
film is a plentiful, actor's paradise work that allows for many of them to
really sink and cut their teeth into many of the monologues given to them,
all of which creates a rich tapestry of deep personal wounds for
these souls. I liked one involving Toledo's inspired bit of food therapy
that also metaphorically hints at the black experience in America
of them being societal "leftovers."
The language used here is simple and plain spoken, but evocatively
speaks volumes. Perhaps the
crown jewel of monologues here comes from Boseman's Levee himself, which
piggybacks off of an earlier one from him talking about witnessing his
mother being sexually assaulted by a dozen and a half white men.
Things go even deeper during his second monologue, which begins
with a slow and methodical attack on Cutler's religious fixation and how
his God was completely AWOL from saving his mother and himself. Levee reveals in an utterly painful confession how the white
men that abused his mother later lacerated him in the chest as a child,
forever branding him. It's
one of the most emotionally gut wrenching speeches in a movie in an
awfully long time.
always been a superlative on screen performer, but he takes it to a whole
different level with his challenging and layered work as the pride filled
and wounded Levee, who emerges as the most fascinatingly complex character
of the whole piece. He's the
kind of eager go-getter that's hungry for industry recognition and is
indeed an endlessly talented musician.
But he also knows that he occupies an industry and larger world outside
of it that simply doesn't allow for easy advancement for his kind. And the film has this sinister way of creeping up on viewers
to show the whirlwind of pain and suffering that this man has gone through
in life, which has empathetically informed his distrust of white men and
hatred of God and religion. I
think with a lesser actor at the helm then Levee could have come off as an
acid tongued, one note villain (his actions later on take a morose turn to
violence), but the script and Boseman's mesmerizing turn make Levee more
of a layered personality and a victim more than a cruel figure of spite
that wants to see the world burn. The
actor evokes all of the conflicted facades of this doomed artist and it's a
heartbreaking portrait of sorrow and fury.
It's arguably his finest screen performance that might net him a
And lets not
forget about Ma Rainey herself in Viola Davis, whose been so damn good in
so many movies over the years that it's frankly become difficult to count
(let's not forget she won Best Supporting Actress for her searing work in
FENCES). Rainey is simply a
force of nature throughout the film, and Davis has a field day with the
gloriously showy role and effortlessly relays to viewers why she was such
a demanding and authoritative figure of influence in her time.
And the other supporting players are pitch perfectly cast as well,
giving MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM one of the finest acting ensembles in a
long time. Because this film
exists as a pure showpiece of its actors and the exquisitely rendered
dialogue, this unfortunately leads to one of my minor nitpicks (as was the
case with FENCES): There are times when it feels more like a contained
play than a movie itself, and Wolfe tries as he can to create some visual
interest in the spare settings. I
also think that considering the sheer enormity of the ideas and themes at
play that the film's running time of a scant 90-plus minutes feels a tad