Black and Blues

Chadwick Boseman goes out in blaze of glory in this masterful musical biopic

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Starring Viola Davis & Chadwick Boseman
Directed by George C. Wolfe
R
Available Dec. 18, 2020 on Netflix

Viola Davis gives a boisterous, bigger-than-life performance at the musical epicenter of this stage-to-screen biopic about the “Mother of the Blues” and a contentious recording session one sweltering summer day in 1927.

But the movie belongs to the late Chadwick Boseman, who goes out in an absolute blaze of glory in his final acting role as one of Ma’s band members.

Based on a Broadway play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes its title from one of Rainey’s tunes, about a raucous Roaring Twenties flapper dance that was very popular at the time. Rainey, a Georgia-born singer who began her career in rural tent shows, became one of the era’s most popular and successful blues singers, especially after recording companies saw that there was green to be made from Blacks singing the blues.

But in 1927, Ma was on the downside of her career. The gigs weren’t as big, there were other popular blues singers on the rise, like Bessie Smith, and musical tastes were changing. The movie depicts a (fictional) day when Rainey has ventured north to a Chicago studio to put several tunes onto vinyl, including “Black Bottom.”

She meets up with her musicians—the diplomatic trombonist and band leader, Cutler (Colman Domingo); Toledo (Glynn Turman, whom fans of this season’s Fargo will recognize as Doctor Senator, the right-hand man of Chris Rock’s starring crime-boss character), her sagacious piano player; upright bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts); and young coronet hotshot Levee (Boseman), who’s itching to break out, write his own songs and start his own band.

And that’s not all: Ma arrives in tow with her pretty-young-thing girlfriend trinket, Dussie Mae (Taylor Paige, from TV’s Hit the Floor) and Ma’s teenage nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), whose speech impediment will stall the recording session—but not Ma’s insistence that he record a spoken intro to one of her songs.

Ma isn’t exactly excited about having to come to Chicago, spending a day in a broiling studio. She’s peeved that her—white—manager (Jeremy Shamos) has forgotten that she always requires a Coca Cola (or two, or three) before recording. She’s not happy that Levee’s been embellishing her songs—her songs—with his snazzy-jazzy trumpet trills and fills. And she’s certainly not happy when she catches Levee casting lusty glances at Dussie Mae.

Ma is a magnificent, brassy, sassy, sweaty mountain of attitude, makeup, teeth filings and gold-mine talent that makes everyone else bend before her, like green Georgia pines in a cat-five cyclone. Davis, an award-winning veteran actress with more than 80 movie and TV roles to her credit, virtually disappears into the blustry, busty, bisexually voracious blues matron, becoming a veritable force of nature, as elemental as earth, air, fire or water—a swaggering proto-diva who looks like she could eat Rihanna for lunch, burp up Whitney Houston and use Cher as a toothpick.

Davis’ previous Oscar—a Best Supporting Actress trophy—was for Fences, another play by Wilson adapted for the screen. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her get a Best Actress nod, if not a trophy, for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

But this movie is Boseman’s, in more ways than one. In this his final acting role, before his death, at age 42 from colon cancer in August 2020, he sears the screen with a hauntingly powerful performance that takes on even more gravity because we know it was to be his last.

The temperature is high in the recording studio where Ma and her band come to record, and Levee makes it even hotter. Boseman plays him as a live wire, electrified with life, lust, jive and cocky confidence, a character of such depth, dreams, passion and rage that we’re still learning about him as the movie closes. And unlike his bandmates and his bossy boss, who just want to do the job and get back home, Levee (correctly) sees the future: It’s not in the earthy moan of Ma’s backwater blues, but instead in the snappy, swingy pep of more “commercial” arrangements—that would later pave the way to rock and roll. It’s in the songs he’s written that he wants to give to the studio producer, another white fat-cat (Jonny Coyne) with a wad of cash, who says he likes Levee and he likes his music, and he’ll give him a shot. But will he really?

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, like Fences, is one of the works in Wilson’s acclaimed 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle about the Black experience in America during different decades of the 20th century. Like all the Cycle plays, this one has a lot of things to say—and it says them, in its crackling dialogue and its testy power-play dynamics between Ma and her band, her manager and her producer, and in the tension of Black musicians working for white men, who not only control the recording equipment, but also the purse strings.

It’s all set against the backdrop of the “Great Migration,” when millions of Black families relocated from the rural South to the North, to places like Chicago, Detriot and New York City, seeking better postwar job opportunities and lives—or fleeing segregation, Jim Crow laws and the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan. But urban life wasn’t necessarily easier; racism and prejudice knew no geographic boundaries. The migration eventually resulted in a “renaissance” of Black culture, a spread of diversity and influence into wider America. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom shows how a Georgia blues singer stood for her own Black Lives Matter movement long before there was a movement.

Vibrantly full of music—from Ma and her band, as well as an original soundtrack by Branford Marsalis—and bathed in a golden retro glow (by acclaimed cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, who dazzled moviegoers with Dreamgirls and Disney’s live-action 2017 remake of Beauty and the Beast), it’s a masterful, full-on sensory experience that feels like a pulsing, living, breathing, heaving time capsule.  

Boseman (foreground) with Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Michael Potts as Slow Drag and Colman Domingo as Cutler.

In the dingy basement band rehearsal room, Levee and his fellow musicians banter, josh and rib each other. They talk about Levee impulsively blowing an entire gig’s pay—plus some—on a fancy new pair of shoes. They talk about God and the devil, about being Black in a white man’s world; Toledo riffs out a song at his piano that equates humanity to a stew, a gumbo mix of all sorts of food, with Black people as its dicards, the “leftovers.” In the film’s most extended, emotionally intense, centerpiece scene, Levee tells a story about his childhood and his mama, a bunch of white men who entered his house—and how he got the scar he still bears on his chest.

He may be forever remembered as The Black Panther, but this movie, and even that scene alone, could be—and should be—what gets Boseman an Oscar.

“White people don’t understand the blues,” says Ma. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.”

Bozeman’s red-hot performance, his swan song, burns a sizzling hole in the middle of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, leaving us with an emptiness that will take a long time to fill, the hollow space of an immensely gifted actor who gave everything he had for his last hurrah, all the fire and intensity of which he was capable. Way too hot, way too young, way too soon.

That kind of blues—we may not understand ’em, Ma, but we sure can feel ’em.

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