Talking Black and the blues in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Chadwick Boseman (left) and Viola Davis star in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” now on Netflix.

Of the countless tragedies we’ve suffered through in 2020, the death of actor Chadwick Boseman at age 43 was arguably the hardest in the movie industry.

From his breakout portrayals of Jackie Robinson and James Brown in 2013 and 2014, respectively, to his star-making performances as Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Boseman was one of the best actors of his generation, and since 2016 he was slowly dying of colon cancer.

Already delivering the second-best performance of his career earlier in 2020 in “Da 5 Bloods,” Boseman gave the world his best performance posthumously with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the new drama on Netflix adapted from the play by August Wilson.

Wilson is the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright best known for a series of ten plays collectively called “The Century Cycle” that explores the Black experience in 20th century America. With greater support of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, a movie about Black artists and the struggles they face written by one of the best playwrights of the 20th Century is a fitting finale to 2020.

With a stellar cast led by two titans of their craft, directed by George C. Wolfe and co-produced by Denzel Washington, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a passion project by its creators that is both a time capsule for Black lives in the 1920s and as relevant today as when the play premiered 35 years ago.

Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1927 Chicago as four musicians await the arrival of their band’s trailblazing leader, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (portrayed by Viola Davis).

As the band waits in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry, spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of personal stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives.

Meanwhile, the fearless, fiery Ma arrives late to the session and engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music. Not budging on her position or vision of her career, Ma refuses to let society’s prejudices over her sex and race dictate her worth.

As is the case with many plays, most of the action takes place over the course of a couple of hours in one location — a recording studio. While a scene may take place out in the alley or in the basement or recording space itself, the driving force behind the story is the characters’ dialogue and how they work off of one another.

Boseman’s performance as Levee is one of the best of the year, starting out fairly simple — a young horn player who wants to leave the old sound behind and make a name for himself with a new sound — but over the course of the film his story and true character are revealed in haunting monologues that Wilson is famous for. The added layer of knowing Boseman was so sick at this point makes his two best speeches all the more haunting.

On the other side of the cast is Davis’s portrayal of Ma Rainey which, while dramatized, is still an excellent portrait of a Black woman in a time when being either meant doing whatever white men told her to do. Even though some of her demands are played for laughs, like refusing to record until her manager and the producer get her a bottle of Coke, a lot of it is sad but inspiring. Davis commands every inch of the screen when she’s on, so when she and Boseman go head-to-head in the final act, it’s magic.

Although set in the 1920s and written in the 1980s, so many moments from “Ma Rainey” are unfortunately so familiar today. Whether it’s a policeman threatening to arrest Ma for causing a car accident she wasn’t responsible for to the white record producer underpaying and/or taking credit for the Black musicians’ work, it’s tough to see how some progress hasn’t progressed enough.

Showcasing as much talent behind the scenes in the sets and costumes as in front of the camera, Wolfe and Washington create a believable world to get lost in that makes the characters’ stories that much more real, all led by Davis and Boseman at the top of their crafts.

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