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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Going Out On A High Note"
4 stars

Practically from the moment of Chadwick Boseman’s sudden passing last summer, there has been talk that his now-posthumous performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the film version of August Wilson’s celebrated 1984 play, was not just the best work of his already-considerable career but made him virtually a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar to boot. Of course, whenever a performer dies with work yet to be released, there is always the tendency to overly venerate it once it reaches the light of day—partly out of a sense of genuine grief over the loss of a talent taking too soon and partly because nobody wants to run the risk of looking like a heartless asshole by critiquing the work. However, in this particular case, that intense amount of hype has proven to be justified for once because even if he were still alive today, we would still be discussing his performance as both one of the year’s very best and as the high point of his own body of work because it really and truly is a knockout that transforms an otherwise okay screen rendition of a good play into a movie that needs to be seen by anyone who needs another reminder of his talents.

Set in the film takes place over the course of a few hours in a Chicago recording studio where the legendary blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (Viola Davis), a fictionalized version of the real-life woman known as the “Mother of the Blues,” is scheduled to record with her band. To the outside world, Ma—a heavy, dark-skinned, bisexual African-American woman—essentially stands as a living representation of everything hated and feared by the power structure at large. The one advantage that she has is that she is in possession of a stunning musical voice that she knows she can translate into money whenever she steps behind a microphone and lets loose. And since she knows that certain people, such as her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and her record producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), will put up with a lot in exchange for a piece of what that voice can earn financially, she steps into the studio determined to make the most of her position of power for as long as she can, whether it is holding up a recording until she gets and consumes her contractually stipulated bottle of Coca-Cola or further delaying things by demanding that her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), be allowed to perform the spoken introduction to the song being recorded despite the fact that he a considerable stutter.

For most of the members of her four-man band—pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo)—her delays and star turns are just her way of doing things and they are content to let things go as they are. The one upstart in the group is Levee (Boseman), the talented and fiercely independent trumpeter who has ambitions of starting his own band and bringing his own musical vision to the world. Although talented, ambitious and reckless—he is also carrying on with Ma’s chorus girl lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige)—what he fails to recognize, and which his other bandmates see all too clearly, is that no matter how prodigious his gifts may be, no one particularly wants them in the same way that people will put up with Ma in exchange for her music and the riches accompanying it. This is the sort of thing that his older bandmates have presumably seen before in other talented-but-cocky musicians whose ambitions have backfired and they treat him accordingly. What they don’t realize is that Levee’s denial of the reality of his situation festered into something dark and ugly and when his dreams finally collapse after he pushes things just a little too far, the results are as explosively violent as his talent.

Wilson’s play dealt with issues involving race, power, the exploitation of black artists and the trouble in store for those who dare to buck the system that remain as potent today as they were when Wilson wrote it and during the time when it was set. Although some trims have evidently been made here and there, Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation is a largely respectful one doesn’t radically alter things. However, in trying to transform the material from its theatrical origins into something more conventionally cinematic, he and director George C. Wolfe occasionally stumble. At one point, for example, there is a moment in which Levee, upset over being unable to play his music his way, tries running out of the building, only to come across a brick wall that might as well have “SYMBOL” written on it in huge letters so that no one in the audience misses the point. As for Wolfe, who has directed a few films but is primarily a theater director, he tries to compensate for the stage bound nature, especially in the early going, with a restless visual style employing an always moving camera. This certainly livens things up and helps it to avoid feeling like a filmed play. The problem with this is that by boosting the visual energy, Wolfe robs the material of some of the tension that would have otherwise developed over the course of the story until it exploded at last during the climax.

This is a problem, to be sure, but it is one that the film is able to eventually overcome due to the incredible quality of the performances across the board. Considering that Viola Davis is both one of the best American actresses working today and someone who has performed Wilson’s work before (she appeared in the 2010 Broadway revival of “Fences” and won an Oscar reprising the role in the subsequent 2016 film version), she would seem to be the absolute ideal person to play Ma and she does not disappoint. Her Ma is a true force of nature and even at her most exasperating moments, you cannot help but be in her corner and cheer her on as she revels in the ability to assert herself at a time when people like her were generally ignored or worse. At the same time, even at her most imperious, she is able to convey Ma’s sad realization that everything she has—her money, her power, her lover—is solely the result of her gift for singing and that the moment that goes, everything else will quickly disappear as well. Among the supporting players, the standout is Turrman as Toledo, who recognizes more clearly than anyone else that no matter how talented people like Ma and Levee may be, their unique gifts alone will not make much difference in improving the lives of black people as a whole in the long run.

However, it is Boseman’s work that puts the film over the top. From the moment he appears on the screen, he is a hurricane of energetic bravado that is so intense that there are times when it almost seems as if it might be too much for the story at hand. However, his work is so beautifully modulated that it never goes too far overboard and when he gets to his climactic speech, he hits every note in such a direct and stirring manner that you may be shocked by its impact when it concludes. Levee is a complex and sometimes frustrating character, one touched equally by genius and the capacity for self-destruction, and watching him as what he plans as his great escape to a better life transforms into a trap that not even his talent can help him flee is thrilling and heartbreaking in equal measure. Had fate not dealt a different hand, Boseman’s performance would have easily elevated him into the ranks of the best actors working today and supercharged his career. As it is, it stands as both the best work of his career and a near-perfect encapsulation of the artistic gifts that he was able to share for too short of a time but which will clearly go on to stand the test of time.

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originally posted: 12/19/20 02:12:05
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  25-Nov-2020 (R)



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