“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” written by playwright August Wilson, hit Netflix this weekend. Driven by the talents of one of Broadway’s leading directors, George Wolfe, and its incomparable lead actors Viola Davis as the Mother of the Blues and Chadwick Boseman, a talented young horn player, the story depicts a struggle of equality and how these inequities influence each of the characters during a high-tension recording session in Chicago.
Before arriving in Chicago, the raucously captivating Ma Rainey (Davis) with vaudevillian-like makeup and a gilted smile is performing under a tent to a predominantly Black audience in the deep south. Ma has made a name for herself, crossing the racial boundaries with her vocal and musical talents, appealing to both Blacks and whites. With her fame comes an angry power culminating in confrontation with those who challenge her.
Driving north to a Chicago recording studio with her band, her niece and her nephew, she’s demanding, rude, confrontational and manipulative, possessing no fear whatsoever. Woe be to the one who dares to challenge this woman. But there’s good reason for this lashing out, which we learn later.
The four band members, Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and eventually Levee (Boseman) congregate in a dilapidated basement room of the Chicago recording studio making you wonder if every band is placed here or if it is just the Black bands. But it is here, in this suffocatingly hot and oppressively small room the foundation of their relationship is poured.
There’s a suspicious focus on a locked door to an unknown destination, perhaps symbolizing their situations as well as their hopes for the future. A rhythmically vibrant discussion of the constant element of change breaks out, accompanied by the occasional musical note.
The fast-paced exchanges give insight into the personalities of each of the men, but it is Levee’s restlessness and anxiousness that draws out the conversational topics from “making the world better for the colored man,” to selling your soul to the devil.
It’s obvious the three wise and older men are at peace with their own contributions and successes, and with their honesty with one another and the tolerance of young Levee’s push to have more and be more, we peel back the layers of each of the men to gaze upon their souls.
As the tensions begin to mount between Levee and his fellow band mates, upstairs Ma is making it perfectly clear this is her group. She is the leader. She is in control, and she is the focal point.
We get a glimpse earlier these aspects most certainly will be an issue between Ma and Levee later, and they are. To shake things up even more, Ma insists her nephew, who stutters, will do the introduction to the recording, much to everyone’s chagrin, especially Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), Ma’s manager; and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the recording studio owner, as each error costs them money.
This, in all honesty, seems to make Ma happy, as it’s a way to punctuate that she is in control, not them. Then, throw in some good, old-fashioned Chicago heat and humidity, and you have a volcano ready to explode.
As with any August Wilson play, the potent dialogue fits the era and sucker punches you, leaving you breathless as you attempt to unpack it fully. With powerful prose, each character’s performance word, pause and movement eloquently conveys the deeply raw experiences of their past — the frustrations and ultimately the anger within.
The stories, an amalgam of the atrocities we’ve read about, bring you to tears. It’s harsh, emotionally confrontational and still relevant today, unfortunately.
To elicit these evocative reactions, the entire ensemble finds the core of their characters, but this is Levee’s story to tell. He’s young and passionate and on the surface, he won’t let anyone stop him as forges full-steam ahead. But that anger within is seen easily as we pull back the curtain to expose his past experiences.
He has the power of youth in his pocket but lacks the restraint that comes with age. Couple this with the emotional trauma and his desires and the volcano begins to rumble, and it’s only a matter of time until it erupts.
Boseman is sensational, perhaps his best role. He keys into this character’s cocky, headstrong thinking and creativity while lightly suppressing the fear and frustration we see in his subtle facial expressions and his eyes.
The twitch of his lids and the slight quiver of the corner of this mouth accentuates his soliloquies, and just as quickly as he melts, he flips a switch and becomes the gregarious horn player who wants the spotlight. The passion with which he creates this character is unparalleled as it leaves an indelible emotional effect on the viewer, all while he dances, sings and plays his trumpet.
Davis is equally powerful as she portrays a hardened woman who is hell-bent on steam rolling through the remainder of her life. It’s a nuanced role doused in rage, but Davis finds so much more to deliver in this character, and we understand her mindset.
There’s an element of sadness as she protects her nephew, but happiness seems to be out of reach for this woman. Of course, Wolfe brings his vast knowledge of theater and incorporates it into the film, bringing an energy and greatness to every scene.
Bouncing camera angles, seemingly swirling images and vibrant costuming make this energetic endeavor even more grand. With succinct editing, the film becomes complete, a product that perhaps the original playwright would give a standing ovation.
Reel Talk rating: 4 Stars