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Netflix’s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ sings the blues

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The transition from stage to screen can be hard.

No matter how good a stage play might be, no matter how brilliant the writing and writer, the shift from a live performance setting into the realm of cinema is rife with pitfalls. There are any number of things that can go awry, leaving audiences with a detached viewing experience that simply cannot compare with the one that took place in the room where it happened.

But when it works, man oh man – it WORKS.

Netflix’s new film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson’s play of the same name – works. It is an electrifying piece of cinema, powerful and provocative. The performances – led by Viola Davis as the titular Ma and an absolutely mesmerizing turn from the late Chadwick Boseman – are exquisite. The period aesthetic is vividly on point and the music slaps.

It’s a story of appropriation and what it means to push back against that appropriation. It’s about using whatever talents you have to force your way into the conversation, to demand a place at the table of your own, regardless of whether the world believes you deserve that spot. It is about systemic racism and cultural exploitation and the myriad ways in which one might choose to deal with those harsh realities.

In 1927, there are few bigger stars in the world of Black music than Ma Rainey (Viola Davis, TV’s “How to Get Away with Murder”). Known colloquially as the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma is a legendary performer, one who sells out shows all through the American South, bringing her unique vocals and daring sensuality to stages large and small.

Ma and her band are scheduled to cut a record at a studio in Chicago. Most of the band turns up right on time – there’s bandleader and trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo, TV’s “Fear the Walking Dead”), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman, “The Way Back”) and double bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts, “Cicada”). They’re practical men, guys who appreciate the fact that they have a gig and are grateful to work with an icon like Ma Rainey.

And then there’s late arriving Levee (Chadwick Boseman, “Da 5 Bloods”), a tremendously gifted – and tremendously arrogant – trumpet player. Levee derides Ma’s songs as “jug band music” and believes that his own abilities as a musician and songwriter will only be fully appreciated when he leads his own band.

Meanwhile, Ma’s manager Mr. Irvin (Jeremy Shamos, TV’s “The Undoing”) is anxiously awaiting the arrival of his star … and she’s not the least bit concerned about making him wait, much to the chagrin of both Irvin and studio owner Mr. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne, TV’s “Preacher”).

Eventually, Ma shows up, with her entourage – nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown, TV’s “The Lion Guard”) and lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige, TV’s “The Baxters”) – in tow. She immediately proves to be every bit as much the diva as her talent would indicate, making demands large and small regarding the recording session and refusing to budge on a single one of her expectations.

All the while, the boys in the band are downstairs rehearsing, though Levee’s arrogance and entitlement start to wear on the other three. Even in the occasional moments in which Levee displays some manner of vulnerability, he proves irascible and unwilling to entertain the though that anyone else might know better than him, even going so far as to brag about Mr. Sturdyvant’s asking him to write songs that the producer will record once Levee assembles his band. The other bandmembers – older, wiser gentlemen who have a much more nuanced understanding of the world – are equal parts irritated and amused by Levee’s attitude.

Emotions rise with the temperature as Ma and her band look to record some of the songs that have made her such a legendary figure in blues circles. As Irvin and Sturdyvant plead and harangue, Ma stands her ground. Throughout the process, the tension remains – particularly when some inappropriate interactions start bubbling to the surface.

And the beat goes on.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an exceptional film, easily one of the very best I’ve seen this year. It is a dramatic masterwork, an exquisitely-executed period piece that captivates and utterly engrosses. This is a snapshot summation of the struggles of Black performers, the balance between the societal expectation for them to entertain and the basic human dignity that they deserved but too rarely found. A look at a world where large battles weren’t fought so small ones could be won.

It’s also very obviously an adaptation of a stage play, and I very much mean that as a compliment. August Wilson was a genius whose 10-play “The Pittsburgh Cycle” is one of the monumental achievements in the last 50 years of American theatre – by all means, find ways to show this work to as many people as possible. Having an obviously invested and connected director like Wolfe – whose career began as a director for the stage – leading the way allowed for a much smoother and more understanding translation to the screen.; an ideal marriage of adaptation.

The space in which the story operates is so utterly minimal; the vast majority of the film takes place in two rooms in a single building. That unity of place allows for the ideas and the characters to assume full control of the proceedings – and boy do they ever.

It was difficult to watch just how good Chadwick Boseman is in this movie. It is a brilliant performance, an indication of just how ready he was to show us all what he could do. He is swaggering and crude and unapologetically combative, a strutting braggart wrapped up in his own talent. And when the walls drop … man. Utterly captivating from the moment he’s on the screen to the moment he leaves it.

Meanwhile, Viola Davis puts her own immense talent on display, crafting a mesmerizing portrait of an aging diva whose musical gifts are equaled only by her shrewd stubbornness. Ma Rainey is blowsy and broken-down, yet still magnetic; there’s a challenge to her charisma that Davis captures with brash elegance. And then you’ve got top-tier work being put forward by the rest of the ensemble. Domingo, Turman and Potts are exceptional, their steady patter and easy demeanor lending their relationship instant credibility – there’s an energy to old friendships that is tough to fake, but these three found it from minute one.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a GREAT movie, intimate and intense and marked by brilliant and memorable performances. The power of its message might have overwhelmed lesser lights, but Boseman, Davis and the rest prove more than up to the challenge. It sings.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 21 December 2020 11:35

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