More of Ma’s time and attention is what everybody wants in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (★★★★☆), even if she’s just going to be gritting her teeth before taking a bite out of their ass. Only one in Ma’s circle — among her band, her manager, her nephew, her girlfriend — thinks they should be the center of attention, and that’s Levee, her horn player. Full of brass and braggadocio, Levee, portrayed indelibly by Chadwick Boseman in his final onscreen performance, blares constantly about the band he’s gonna put together and the records he’s gonna make. Between his ego and Ma’s, something’s got to give, and we know damn well it won’t be Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis as coarse, bossy, prickly, and unreasonable. So all we can do is await the inevitable explosion.
Adapting August Wilson’s acclaimed 1982 play for the screen, director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson judiciously stoke the story’s fire. Wolfe lets his cast simmer in the playwright’s atmosphere of blues and Black history, mining Ma Rainey’s 1920s-era setting for its lush style and fashions, from the band’s natty suits, to Levee’s new shoes and Ma’s fabulously fringed gowns, care of Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth.
Wilson packed a wealth of Americana into every play of his Pittsburgh Cycle, and here addresses religion, racism, sexism, and civic responsibility. The plot nods to the Great Northward Migration and offers a concise depiction of how easily Black entertainers like Ma and Levee might be (and often were) exploited in a recording industry run by white men who only valued their saleability. Ages of resentment resound in Ma’s observation that her longtime manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) claims to regard her as a friend — but the only time he invited her to his house was to sing for a party of white folks.
As Ma and her band, led by level-headed trombonist Cutler (an excellent Colman Domingo), fuss and play their way through a fraught Chicago recording session, Ma and Levee play out another slice of Americana — the tension between jazz and the blues. Levee has that new sound, Ma wants to stick to her old blues, and the friction between the two isn’t just musical, it’s historic. It becomes sexual, too, once Ma’s girl Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) gets herself caught in the middle. Davis, plumped up for the role, her face aglow with rouge and sweat, carries herself so regally as Ma, only a fool would get between her and anything she wants.
Levee is that fool, and Boseman makes him spectacular in his foolishness, impulsiveness, and misdirected anger. Boseman tears into Levee’s pivotal mid-way monologue describing the tortured past that still weighs down on him. Wolfe overheats the moment by keeping the camera close on Boseman, following up with another monologue in closeup, by Glynn Turman’s soulful Toledo.
The film barely escapes a sense of staginess, and, unfortunately, neither the sound design nor lip-sync totally sell the illusion of Ma’s live singing (by vocalist and former Ikette, Maxayn Lewis). Nevertheless, Davis puts Ma’s blues across, just as Boseman gives light to Levee’s fire. The role pays complicated tribute to generations of African-American men who gave in to their pride — and it’s a fitting finale for an actor who embodied Black icons for a living.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available for streaming starting Friday, Dec. 18, exclusively on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.
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