Unless you know your American theatre, you may not be familiar with August Wilson or his work for the stage yet two of his plays received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and two others each won a Tony Award for Best Play. Wilson was also inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2006, sadly one year after he died at the age of 60. Since his death, two-time Oscar® winner Denzel Washington has embarked on a mission to produce nine of Wilson’s plays for the screen. His first effort, FENCES, was released in 2016 and it garnered 56 awards including a Best Actress Oscar® for Viola Davis (WIDOWS). Washington and Davis have teamed up again, this time for a screen adaptation of Wilson’s acclaimed play, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM.
The time is 1927 and a band of musicians gathers at a recording studio in Chicago awaiting the arrival of their boss, the legendary female blues singer Ma Rainey (Davis). In the rehearsal room, Levee (Chadwick Boseman, BLACK PANTHER; the AVENGERS franchise; 21 BRIDGES), the group’s trumpeter, squabbles with his fellow musicians, pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman, RACE, TV’s HOUSE OF LIES and FARGO), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts, TV’s TRUE DETECTIVE) and the quartet’s de facto leader, trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK; LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER; TV’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD). Levee, who is both talented and temperamental, wants to have a more prominent role in the group, doing solos instead of just being one of the nameless people who back up Ma. He believes that the time is coming when the musicians, and not the singers, will be the stars. The others will have nothing of that kind of talk though. To them, Ma is and will always be the star, a belief that Ma herself fiercely reinforces when she finally arrives.
Many people are calling this Boseman’s greatest performance and I would have to agree. It’s heartbreaking to see the actor so emaciated due to the cancer that was ravaging his body, but even through his illness he left nothing on the table. My colleagues and I debated whether Levee is a good or bad guy. I say he isn’t. He’s deeply troubled, for sure, and he lets his ambition and hot-headedness get the better of him but he not a bad person. The bottom line is that he was correct and we see that in the film’s closing scene. The Great Depression and World War II saw the rise of the big bands in American music where musicians like clarinetist Benny Goodman, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, trombonists Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, and others were the stars.
As fabulous as Boseman is here, so too is Davis. The real Ma Rainey weighed close to 300 pounds and the 55-year-old actress reportedly ballooned her weight up to 200 pounds to physically embody the late blues singer. (The rest was a fat suit.) Between that, the teeth prosthetics and the heavy eye makeup, the actress is barely recognisable. Interestingly, for a film about a music legend, there’s very little of Ma’s music performed here. Instead, Wilson focuses on Ma both as a band leader and as a black woman who must constantly fight for what is hers in a white man’s world. Ma’s bisexuality is also briefly touched upon with the presence of her girl toy, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige, ZOLA), who, like Ma, does what she needs to do to get ahead.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is available now on Netflix. Expect well-deserved Oscar wins for both Davis and Boseman, and maybe even a nomination for the director, two-time Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe. This is definitely one of my favourite films of the year.
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