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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom review: Viola Davis-starrer hits all the right notes

Chadwick Boseman is as eloquent in this role of the thin upstart as he was in the latent power of his Black Panther -- both characters unable to shake off their pasts. Levee's ambition makes you feel for him, and be as scared for him.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Written by Shalini Langer | Updated: December 18, 2020 9:02:56 pm
Ma Rainey's Black BottomMa Rainey's Black Bottom is streaming on Netflix. (Photo: Netflix)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom movie cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom movie director: George C Wolfe
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom movie rating: Four stars

It’s about our history, our desires, our pain, our struggles, our pursuit of recognition — this is how producer Denzel Washington describes what the Blues music means to the Black community. It’s a big burden to bear, and lighter pieces of work would crumble under it. However, acclaimed writer August Wilson, on whose play the film is based, found a way to tell the story of America’s painful history through this course of one recording session in Chicago in the late 1920s. Now, screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and director George C Wolfe have found a way to capture it in a crisp 94-minute film, through a cast of actors who do almost agonising justice to the story. There can’t be a better moment to tell this story than a year that has been about loss, a year where racial disparity spilled onto the streets — with the fact that this is Chadwick Boseman’s last performance adding another layer of poignancy.

The angst of his young, restless, angry Black horn player keeps crashing against the hardened stone determination of Ma (Davis), leaving behind a detritus of possibilities and denials. Those around them are washed up in the churning, except the white records owner and Ma’s manager who know they just have to stand clear of the ripples.

Davis’s whole body is a canvas where years of labour, both singing in the shadows and then fighting for the limelight, play out. Covered in a sheen of glistening sweat, she is explosive like molten lava. But when she is singing, from “the gut”, and hitting you there”, Davis is about joy, Davis is about defiance, Davis is about life — the three other qualities inseparable from Blues music. When she is not there on screen, one pines for her to come back on — and if the film could have changed anything, it could have ensured she was on screen longer.

Ma is the “Mother of the Blues” — as opposed to the Queen of the Blues, as the film pointedly underlines. But Ma is not averse to some royal tantrums, from ensuring that her nephew who has a stammer will introduce her, to demanding three bottles of ice-cold Coke before she get on with the recording, which she then chooses to gulp down in loud sucking noises. She is only as good as her voice in “their world”, Ma says, and she will ensure they pay for it.

If Ma has worked her way to this, Levee (Boseman) is a man in a hurry, confident to the point of being brash, carefree to the point of being reckless, and foolish to the point of being a fool. He brings to Ma’s band of four his own personal, tragic history, and is done waiting around being “satisfied” with a bone that someone throws at him.

Boseman is as eloquent in this role of the thin upstart as he was in the latent power of his Black Panther — both characters unable to shake off their pasts. Levee’s ambition makes you feel for him, and be as scared for him.

However, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom wouldn’t be the film it is without the other actors, playing Ma’s troupe, who drive and embellish Levee and Ma’s stories. The conversations they have, as they wait for the music to begin, are conversations being held across homes at the time — about choices, ambitions, and about living little vs aiming big.

Those conversations continue. Which makes it all the more worthwhile that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is part of a project to film August Wilson’s plays, all showing how Black lives matter.

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