NETFLIX FILM REVIEW – MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (2020)
Directed by: George C. Wolfe
Produced by: Denzel Washington, Todd Black, Dany Wolf
Screenplay by: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Based on: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts etc.
Music by: Branford Marsalis
Cinematography: Tobias A. Schliessler
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
The spectre of death hangs over us all as time effortlessly drains the life from us. It is an unstoppable force that will quicken on occasion to take a human being way before they deserve. What if said individual has knowledge of their end? Aside from the fear they must be feeling, there is clearly a moment of clarity and strong focus. Something that makes their work gather an altogether unique power. Both player and audience feel such power palpably. This is most certainly the case where Chadwick Boseman’s acting performance is concerned in the screen adaptation of August Wilson’s powerful play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020). As talented, hustling and arrogant musician and songwriter, Levee Green, Boseman is a charismatic vision of drive, confidence, energy and naivety, ready to take on the world, not quite knowing the odds are stacked against him.
Boseman steals the film from under the lungs of the formidable Viola Davis as the titular blues legend, Ma Rainey. Her laconic singer with a voice that stops the clocks is being paid to record a series of songs at a Chicago recording studio in the year 1927. Much conflict is derived from Levee Green’s desire to spice up Ma Rainey’s more traditional blues arrangements. Ma Rainey will not give in to what she perceives as ideas of populism and selling out to white producers who want to water down the blues for a white audience. As Ma Rainey, Viola Davis, excels as this irascible and world-weary diva, fighting off her exploitative manager and record producer. Rainey and the other band members try to dampen Levee Green’s enthusiastic ardour, however, the younger trumpeter will not listen to the advice of more experienced musicians. This eventually comes at a grave cost to those within the play.
Events of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) are set mainly within a day and in the confines of the recording studio. The mix of a hot day, tempestuous characters and colliding personalities all combine in the enclosed space to create much dramatic tension. Given the screenplay is based on August Wilson’s acclaimed play, what the film loses in cinematic visuals, it more than makes up with sensational dialogue and stellar acting performances. Indeed, the supporting cast including: Colman Domingo as Cutler, Glynn Thurman as Toledo and Michael Potts as Slow Drag provide sterling contributions as Ma Rainey’s band. They banter and battle and spar, especially with the argumentative Levee, desiring to simply play the music and get paid. Safe to say therefore the wonderful blues songs performed are beautifully played. They fill the screen with humour and pathos, puncturing the fizzing dialogue of Wilson’s many fine soliloquys with poignant joy.
Amidst the conflict and music, August Wilson’s original text also contains great thematic power within the words. At the heart of the drama and eventual tragedy there is the underlying critique of the black musicians’ songs and style being stripped away from them by unscrupulous record producers. Ma Rainey stands strong rejecting attempts to assimilate her work and personality and voice into the mainstream. Those songs are her lifeblood, and she refuses to entirely sell her soul. Levee Green does not see the bigger picture and is sucked in by the promise of money, women and fame. He is blinded by the bright city lights and the closer he gets to them the easier it is for the record producers to pick his pocket. In such a tragic character August Wilson has created a memorably complex persona, perfectly rendered by the acting genius, Chadwick Boseman.