Thankfully, Boseman transcends all those tragic realities with his performance. He's completely immersed in his character Levee, a Black cornet player in a 1920s blues band. Levee is young and smug and arrogant, always seeking to be the centre of attention…
That is, until the band's lead singer Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey – the real-life 'Mother of the Blues' – turns up. A stern, unbreakable Viola Davis plays her with the energy of an immovable diva; her performance competing with Boseman’s at every turn. Choosing a favourite is impossible.
Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Viola Davis, Michael Potts and Glynn Turman. Photo: Netflix
It’s 1927 and, for the most part, the film’s restricted to a dusty, smoky, steamy summer’s day in Chicago. Ma Rainey’s band arrive at a white-led recording studio, with Levee arriving late and Ma even later. They’re in the process of recording their next album, with fellow band members Toledo (Glynn Toman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) who mainly rehearse in the weathered basement downstairs.
Things keep getting in the way, mainly because of Ma’s excessive demands. She stops a session because there’s no ice-cold Coca-Cola. She enlists her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), to speak the album introductions, but he has a bad stammer that delays the recording. Director George C Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson love these moments: capturing the precise details of the rotating cogs, the needle pinching the vinyl, and the discarded blank records piling in a box.
Often in movie adaptations of plays, the claustrophobic square-footage can threaten the filmic integrity – especially if they're made by ambitious actors. This was the case with Denzel Washington and Fences (also a Wilson play) as well as the forthcoming One Night in Miami, directed by Regina King. The focus is so much on the performances that everything else looks like second thoughts.
George C Wolfe has acted, but isn’t famous for it – which could be why Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom approaches with greater visual intelligence. Tobias Schliessler’s camera reaches in close to the characters, pushing in and pulling back, capturing every facial detail and elevation with absorbing nuances. Although Santiago-Hudson (also a prolific TV/film actor) retains the long, stagey dialogues and monologues without cutting away, Wolfe provides a cinematic quality at close quarters.
Viola Davis plays the immovable diva Ma Rainey. Photo: Netflix
The arrogance of both Ma and Levee make them endlessly watchable as leads. Given the segregation politics of the time, these are bold personalities to uphold. Ma rarely makes compromises for her white manager. Her jet-black eyeshadow intensifies her cold, hard stares, emphasising that she’s not to be messed with: a rare power for a Black woman in 1920s America.
Levee craves the same power, his over-confidence bursting far louder than his bandmates. But unlike Ma, he bows to the white gatekeepers who could further his career. This leads to long but heart-rending speeches outlining his experiences of racism. You never see these stories play out, but Boseman’s vivid and kinetic performance makes you think you did.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is something of a vehicle to show off the talents of Boseman and Davis. Thankfully, they enrich the story they’re telling. And with such rhythm, too.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is out in now in cinemas and is available on Netflix from Friday 18 December
|What||Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Netflix review|
04 Dec 20 – 04 Dec 21, IN CINEMAS
18 Dec 20 – 18 Dec 21, ON NETFLIX
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