This is some of the best work of Boseman’s too short career, and it’s representative of what Davis does every time out.
Director George C Wolfe
Screenplay Ruben Santiago-Hudson based on the novel by August Wilson
Starring Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown
“The time has changed, but the pain hasn’t, necessarily.” Denzel Washington
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tells a story within the time of The Great Migration. It’s a time that Black Americans found hope in moving north away from the home of their indentured servitude. The end of the rainbow did not reveal a pot of gold for most, however. It found crowded cities, poverty and a scarcity of good jobs. More importantly, it still found racism thriving as ever before. August Wilson’s observations don’t stop with racism from one group to another, though. It shows how it’s ill effects hurt everyone within said groups.
The study of this play focuses primarily on two people. Levee (Boseman) is an energetic, creative and optimistic man within Ma Rainey’s (Davis) blues band. He has some ideas of his own, and he senses opportunity. His bubbling youth is in the way of those who understand their role as being a backup band for the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” particularly the guitar / trombone player Cutler (Domingo).
This difference begins to bloom as the band waits for Ma Rainey to arrive to Paramount studios on a hot day in Chicago. Levee has some new song ideas and the record producer appears to be interested. There is a tinge of jealousy with Cutler and the rest of the band, Slow Drag and Toledo (Potts and Turman). There is also a bit of “know your role,” in the mix. The rest of the band has been through much, but they are taken aback when they discover the source of Levee’s inspiration and drive. The tension is palpable. Then Ma arrives.
As an artist, Ma Rainey is a necessarily hard woman. She has an understanding of her talent, and she knows she has to maximize her leverage to even come close to obtaining value from this gift. If it is not for what she can do to profit the people behind the record production, she holds no value to them. The intricacy with which Davis shows this incredibly sad reality is astounding. I think she may be the best living actress.
She pushes her leverage for cash on the barrel and for other, seemingly simpler things. One of these things is a Coca Cola. The second is to have her nephew Sylvester (Brown) given an essential spot at the start of one of her songs. Sylvester has challenges once this second request is allowed, but the look on her face once he achieves it explains Ma Rainey as well as anything else in the story.
Wolfe and his team have fashioned an incredibly accurate representation of the lives of these people, as represented in Wilson’s masterpiece. The dialogue is prescient, but it’s portrayal pushes it to the realm of shared experience. We know the pain and struggle of these characters and we feel it deeply. This is some of the best work of Boseman’s too short career, and it’s representative of what Davis does every time out. This work is a national treasure, even though it shows the pain of a scar that this country will always have. No matter how far we’ve come, the hole is still there. A void in the heart of America.
The effects of the challenges inherent in that void push hurt on those we should be supportive of, while keeping a dampener on our own dreams. This is represented by the chorus that is everyone else viewing Levee and Ma. Their actions of self-preservation contrasting with the expressions of their art are viewed with silent horror as we see its fruit. It’s not just what is done to these characters. It’s what they do to one another.
This film is not going to appeal to everyone, but it should. August Wilson has an understanding of life from which the rest of us could learn. It feels like a breath of fresh air, like a good cry and like a wan smile. It’s a struggle, between love and hate. It is life.
(***** out of *****)