Sparks fly and Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman ignite in "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom"
Starring Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige, Dusan Brown, Jonny Coyne, Jeremy Shamos, Joshua Harto. Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Streaming Dec. 18 on Netflix. 94 minutes.14A
Immovable force meets unstoppable object in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — and let the sparks fly.
This screen adaptation of an August Wilson stage play, set in 1927, is part of a series about the Black experience in white America. Nothing seems to have changed, from the 1920s to the 2020s with how Black people are exploited by white people.
The aforementioned immovable “Mother of the Blues,” a popular singer from Georgia first glimpsed as she belts out a number in a rural tent show before an ecstatic southern audience. She vows to stay true to the earthy deliberations of her music, despite entreaties from businessmen and a younger band member that she “jazz it up” to sell more records to white northern listeners.
Ma Rainey, dressed like a flapper but with gold teeth like a modern gangsta rapper, is played with don’t-cross-me authority and simmering fury by Viola Davis, who won an Academy Award for a previous August Wilson adaptation (“Fences”). Inhabiting the role as if born to it, Davis seems assured to garner another Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actress instead of a supporting role.
Golden expectations also abound for the late Chadwick Boseman (“Black Panther”), the unstoppable object of the piece. In his last screen performance filmed before his untimely death from cancer last August, he’s trumpet player Levee, a man so sure of his talent as a musician and songwriter he’s cockier than a rooster with two combs.
He’s the member of Ma Rainey’s band who sides with music producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), who wants to pick up the tempo of Ma’s music to sell even more copies of her records.
Ma disagrees, volubly, and she’s not about to be pushed around, even when Levee demonstrates his energetic trumpet innovations during a recording of the film’s bawdy title tune.
“You call that playing music?” she sneers.
To make matters worse, Levee has an eye on the bisexual Ma’s girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who also seems interested in him.
Caught in the middle of this volatile faceoff, most of which occurs in one Chicago recording space during a hot summer afternoon, is Ma’s hapless manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who just wants to make a new record.
Ma isn’t so sure she still wants to commit her songs to wax, since she knows too well how Black artists are exploited by white music moguls: “All they want is my voice.”
Similarly squeezed are Levee’s bandmates: trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts). Older and more experienced hands, they’re more interested in their $25 session pay and keeping Ma happy than they are in reinventing modern music. They’re the opposite of brash young Levee, the kind of dandy who will blow a week’s pay on a new pair of shoes.
But heads nod and eyes flash recognition when Levee tells them where his anger comes from: racial hatred directed toward his family that forever altered it. They’ve all been there, in one way or another, although Levee’s family story is particularly tragic and unjust.
With lead characters burning this hot, there’s not much that director George C. Wolfe (“Nights in Rodanthe”) and actor-turned-screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson can or should do other than just stand back and let it all be.
The film doesn’t depart much from Wilson’s play and the confines of the recording studio make it seem as if much of it was filmed on a stage, despite the best efforts of cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler to keep the camera moving, aided by a fluid score from Branford Marsalis.
Ma’s reluctance to record is rooted as much in her suspicions about new technology as it is in her disinclination to trust white guys with dollar signs in their eyes. Once she signs off on her music, what’s to stop them from doing what they want with it? Even Levee comes to understand this.
Director Wolfe leaves us with a searing final image that confirms the creators of this potent Black music really did have reason to sing the blues.
(This review was originally published in the Toronto Star.)