This strange, terrible year took so much from us, including the gifted Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer in August at age 44. In his final performance, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Boseman gives his all and then some, as trumpeter Levee. It’s a jaw-dropping display of his unmatched talent, in a role that allows him to show off the full range of his skill, from joyous singing and dancing to powerfully dramatic oration and cathartically expressed emotion. Fittingly, the film, which is a complex tribute to Black genius, is dedicated to Boseman, “in celebration of his artistry and his heart.”
Directed by George C. Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from the play by Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson (“Fences”). Boseman’s Levee is a showboating, amorous young trumpeter and talented composer/arranger who is creatively stifled while playing in the band of iconic blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Ma and her band have convened in a Chicago recording studio for an afternoon in 1927 at the behest of her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), to commit some of her timeless songs to wax.
The environment is tense and getting tenser by the minute as Ma delays the recording, making seemingly petty demands, while the band stews restlessly in the basement, rehearsing and arguing, goaded by the restless young Levee, who boasts, postures, and, even worse, flirts with Ma’s young companion, the seductive Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Levee is itching for something, excitement, escape from his confines, be it this basement, his old shoes or Ma’s traditional song arrangements. He’s filled with a wild spirit that emerges either dancing or roaring with sorrow, his tragic personal past spilling out like a burst dam.
Ma, frittering away the afternoon, much to Irvin’s chagrin, has an agenda steeped in trauma, too. Her requests for Coca-Cola and that her stuttering nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), will record the intro to her song “Black Bottom” merely cloak the anguish that lies underneath her fierce exterior: a fear that she’ll be exploited for her gift. “They don’t care nothing about me,” she tells bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo). “All they want is my voice … you colored and you can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.”
Davis, padded and made up to resemble the real “Mother of the Blues,” is transformed not just through prostheses, smeared black eyeliner and silver-capped teeth, but through the physicality she brings to the performance. She is powerful, combative and intimidating as Ma, singing and speaking with a rich, low voice channeled from the earth itself. Ma’s behavior isn’t about diva demands but the fair pay and equal treatment for which she knows she has to bully these white men.
In between recordings are reckonings, in Santiago-Hudson’s densely packed script, which plays every note and tone: funny, tragic, trenchant, ironic, touching the emotional outer ranges in every direction. The characters’ monologues about the often-harrowing life experiences and stories they’ve accrued demand your time and attention to every word. It’s not just about art and artists but the entire Black experience in America in the early 20th century, a deeply traumatized history informed by racism, religion and violence, which is reflected in their creative output that is the blues.
The nature of a play committed to film is in some ways claustrophobic, confined by the constraints of space and time. Wolfe and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler create a fluid, richly textured world, the camera swooping and moving in and around the actors. But the characters are still confined: by the space of the studio, by America itself. And that confinement adds an undercurrent of anxiety.
Wolfe, using Wilson’s work, crafts a tragic treatise on the naked hypocrisy of cultural appropriation by a racist society that adopts Black art and discards Black artists in a whitewashing process, stripping the lived, human experience of creation. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a film that asserts the importance and humanity of Black artists, and this vital true story is a fitting sendoff for Boseman, one of our best contemporary actors lost far too soon.
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