Dog’s Movie House: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” Fitting, Fiery Swan Song For Chadwick Boseman!
Directed by George C. Wolfe from a script from Ruben Santiago-Hudson and based on August Wilson’s play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” refers to one of the legendary songs of Ma Rainey (the Mother Of The Blues). Rainey (the transformed and powerful Viola Davis) is in Chicago with her band to record her best known songs on record at the behest of her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos). While her band rehearses in the basement recording studio, Rainey is late to the session and when she arrives, she makes diva-like demands that continue to delay the recording, including having her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) record the intro to her song (which he clearly can’t do). Ramping up the tension even further is the conflict between Rainey and her trumpeter Levee (the magnetic Boseman) over the way to play her signature song.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” plays like a stage production in all the best ways. Aside from a few establishing shots and some small scenes in Chicago the entire movie takes place inside the studio. This type of setup allows the actors to really shine with character building monologues and great exchanges between the various characters. The terrific script allows the actors to peel back the layers and reveal their motivations for their various behaviors.
Davis is a revelation here, buried in prosthetics and makeup to make her look as close to the real Ma Rainey. Her divaesque behavior reveals deep insecurities and fears born of long years experience. She comes off as unlikeable and smug in the beginning but as the movie unfolds she becomes a far more sympathetic figure. Boseman matches Davis step for step as the ambitious and angry Levee. Again, Levee starts out as a talented young punk but as the film continues the layers of his bravado are peeled away to show the humanity and pain underneath. It doesn’t make it suck any less that Boseman is gone, but what a way to go out! Both Davis and Boseman will be featured prominently in the Oscar conversation.
The rest of the cast is also terrific. Coleman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts are wonderful as the other members of the band, and Shamos is great as the long-suffering manager. He is clearly caught between a rock and hard place between Rainey and upper management and his verbal tap dancing is a joy to watch. Also good in smaller roles are Brown as the stuttering Sylvester (the scene where he finally gets the intro right is a rare moment of genuine joy) and Taylor Paige as Dussie, Rainey’s girlfriend and object of Levee’s affection (you can imagine how that’s going to go.).
Despite the theatrical elements of the film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” feels real and timely. The tight script and terrific performances make this film a potential classic and a fitting swansong for the gone-too-soon Chadwick Boseman! “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is now streaming on Netflix. 4 1/2 Out Of 5 On Kendog’s Barkometer! So Sayeth The Kendog!