Ma Rainey’s Black Backside Evaluation: Chadwick Boseman’s newest efficiency is his finest too
The cosmic alignment around the Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is unmistakable. How can one explain in any other way how this fascinating adaptation of August Wilson’s 1984 play features not only Oscar-winning Denzel Washington as a producer, but also Tony-winning George C. Wolfe as a director?
Even more impressive is the film’s ridiculously talented cast, directed by Oscar and Tony winner Wilsonian Viola Davis and the incomparable Chadwick Boseman in his final and best performance. Boseman lost his battle with colon cancer in August and the haunted intensity he brings to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom forces viewers to examine the blurry lines between the death rate the actor is likely to have suffered and that of his character.
Make no mistake, Davis commands respect as the “Mother of the Blues” title. And the gold grill, grease paint, and upholstery she wears undoubtedly transform her into a wild, full figured front woman struggling to assert her dominance in a masculine space fueled by black talents but subjugated by white men becomes. Although Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in Chicago in 1927, it is tragic that many of these dynamics remain in the music industry.
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Despite Davis’s gravitas as Ma Rainey, Boseman steals every scene he can as her trumpeter Levee. He is a sinewy rapeseed callion whose charming smile and boundless ambitions believe in a violent and racist childhood trauma that binds him to his past. First he hits the heads with Ma Rainey on stage with a great trumpet solo. And later he infuriates her by trying to spice up the bluesy arrangement of one of the songs she wants to immortalize on an album in a small and suffocating record studio. During that hot Windy City day in this tattered studio and in the rehearsal room below, most of the 90-minute film takes place, which was reverently written and adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
Not only does Levee want Ma’s notoriety and his own band – things the record label owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) can give him – but Levee ruthlessly plays for Ma’s flirtatious friend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). It’s an act of betrayal that the possessive and openly lesbian ma doesn’t take too long to find out and switch off.
Adding to the tension are Levee’s run-ins with his bandmates Cutler (Colman Domingo), the trombonist and the band’s deputy when Ma is away, and Toledo (Glynn Turman). He’s the gray-haired pianist who warns Levee not to put flash and fun over stability and humility. Cutler and Levee, meanwhile, poke the heads over Levee’s atheism and Cutler’s unrelenting belief in God. Domingo (who currently impresses us in the first Euphoria Special) makes a number of extremely subtle decisions with his body language and language when portraying Cutler, which gives the character unshakable dignity and dogmatism.
Even before things get religiously philosophical, Levee and Cutler puzzle themselves with Trash Talk, with Cutler’s melodic and succinct use of the N-word giving him the verbal upper hand. The time spent in a black barber shop is evidence that this is how black men talk to each other outside of white gaze. And Wolfe, Santiago-Hudson, and the cast honor Wilson’s authentically black monologues and exchanges, as well as the working-class men and women that the late playwright worked so diligently to exalt and portray. These men are musicians, but they are working class musicians.
Michael Potts, who will always be brother Mouzone for die-hard fans of The Wire, rounds off the band as Slow Drag, the bassist. Slow drag is also the only one who knows how to avoid Ma’s Wrath and Levee’s Wrath. After all, Dusan Brown plays Ma’s speech-impaired nephews Sylvester and Jeremy Shamos as their soothing but self-interested manager Irvin.
Wolfe and cameraman Tobias Schliessler also do an excellent job of providing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with the visual space she needs to look and feel more cinematic and less like a stage production. This includes Ma’s tent show in the lush green Georgia forests, vibrant gold stains on city buildings, and a montage of discouraged black Chicagoans. While some blacks succeeded in the north, others learned the hard way that even in better-paying jobs, they had traded the aggressive Jim Crow racism of the south for a more casual version.
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Turman, who played Toledo on stage, holds his own, showing that after over 60 years as an actor, he’s still in demand. And just like last season of Fargo, Turman delivers one of the most powerful monologues in the production. He even learned how to play the piano for the role, a requirement that the film’s composer Branford Marsalis placed on all actors in order for them to look compelling as a band.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is near perfect, but not without its flaws. The biggest thing is that the audience learns a lot about Levee’s past and motivations, but not enough about Ma. Aside from her striving to exercise her authority and the way she violates gender and sexuality, there are still many unknowns. Though Googling her name fills in a few gaps in the real Ma Rainey, the role would have been more dimensional if it had been fleshed out beyond her defiance. It is all the more impressive what Davis can do with the role, because what she doesn’t physically fix, she exhausts emotionally.
After all, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is full of emotion and pathos, just as Wilson wrote it all those years ago. But even the playwright would have been amazed how all these players and plays came together at just the right time to make this the strongest iteration of his work to date. Although Washington plans to convert more of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle into feature films, none will be better than this one.
TV Guide rating: 4.5 / 5
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres on Netflix on Friday, December 18th.