Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

A fond farewell for Chadwick Boseman and a wake-up call from Viola Davis.

As you all know, Chadwick Boseman passed away at the end of August at the age of 43, due to colon cancer. It really left the world in a sad state (as if it wasn’t already sad enough), but we should honor him for his performance as Black Panther in the MCU, as well as his portrayals of James Brown in “Get On Up,” and Jackie Robinson in “42,” among other memorable roles.

His farewell performance can be found in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” in which he plays an ambitious, young trumpet player Levee, who is part of Ma Rainey’s music band, along with Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). He wants to write and sing his own songs, and contemplates in front of the other players about his life and ambitions.

“Who is Ma Rainey?,” you ask.

Ma Rainey (1886-1939) was the blues singer, known as the “Mother of the Blues.“ In the Netflix film version of August Wilson’s play, which is one of the best films of the year, Viola Davis portrays her with the right kind of attitude-one that gives her a stern and persistent tone. She also looks great with the make-up and costumes, and she sings the cover songs with passion and energy. So it’s not just about the Boseman character, even though seeing him on screen for the final time is an emotional experience.

The story is set in 1927 Chicago, during a recording session, when Ma’s nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) comes to introduce the song. Problem: he has a stuttering issue. Solution: Ma doesn’t care. She promised him he could and that’s all there is to it. They keep practicing until he gets the intro right. Other issues include Levee and Cutler arguing about religion, how the former came from a harsh world, and how Ma pushes her white manager (Jeremy Shamos) into getting her required needs. And like me, she requites a Coke to quench her thirst before performing on the mic.

Directed by George C. Wolfe, written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (both of whom collaborated on “Lackawanna Blues”) and produced by Denzel Washington, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” reels us in to the outbursts and drama that allows the characters to be poetic about their lives and how they prefer to live them.

The scene that brings tears to our eyes is when Levee tells the other members how his mother was attacked by white men, and how he survived a slice wound. The way Boseman rants about his reality is proof that it’s virtuoso acting, and he deserves some post-humous Oscar consideration (this or “Da 5 Bloods,” also on Netflix). I’m not saying this, because this is his last role; I’m saying this because of how he expanded his horizons in his film career. And among the other profound performances, Davis should also be up for Oscar consideration, because of how she ignites the screen with fury and power, and Domingo and Turman both provide chemistry with Boseman in how they express themselves poetically.

You also have to appreciate the production design of this period Chicago in the form of a Broadway play with how the buildings and cars look on the ground, and how the characters are placed. And the recording studio, on the inside, also looks great, and provides some memorable moments. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler makes the scenes look fresh-like how Ma drinks her glass Coke bottle, how she performs on stage, and how Levee holds a pocket knife. And the costume designs are also stitched together well.

Ergo, we have a great looking and feeling film with powerful performances and strong emotions all the same.

Rating: 4 out of 4.

Now Playing in Select Theaters

Streaming on Netflix December 18

Categories: Drama, Music

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