“One, two, you know what to do.”
For those who love the blues of the early 1900s, you may know the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey — a sultry singer whose sorrowful lyrics, and swinging tempo, will get you to tap your foot. This story of the famous singer is revisited by the talented screenwriter, August Wilson, taken from the pages of his Pulitzer Prize winning play.
The year is 1927 — prohibition is in full effect with men and women gravitating to speakeasies for drinks and jazz. We find ourselves in Chicago, at a recording studio where Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is set to record her new album. The band packs into a small room — sweat dripping from brows. A young trumpeter by the name of Levee (Chadwick Boseman), with his new yellow shoes, is a firecracker bouncing from wall to wall, and stirring up confrontations with the other band members. The band sets up ready to accompany the famous singer and record some soul crushing blues. Although it may seems like business as usual, the day turns out to be anything but.
There’s something about a Wilson play that can rustle feathers. His previous project , Fences, was brought to the big screen, and released in 2016 with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis taking on the roles of husband and wife. Both Fences and Ma Rainey have a way of telling the stories of even the most misunderstood characters. Ma Rainey is Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, with its titular character a force to be reckoned with. Ma has every reason to falter. A black woman, with barely any authority to make sure her music is made to her standards. But she forces the producers hands to make sure it’s recorded to her liking. Davis’ performance is one for the books as the film paints Ma as a no nonsense female. But as great as Davis is — as always — this is Chadwick Boseman’s movie.
Davis’ screen time is surprisingly short compared to her costar. She fades into the background as the film centers on Boseman’s misunderstood trumpet player, driven down by his status in life. The performance grips you from the start. Sadly, Boseman passed away earlier this year from colon cancer. Many people know the actor from his time as Black Panther, but with this year’s performances in Ma Rainey and Da 5 Bloods, it breaks your heart that we will never see any more thought provoking characters brought to life by him. His performance as Levee is extraordinary, as his speech on God will cut deep within your soul.
Ma Rainey has a very intimate setting — the environment taking place in a claustrophobic building. This intimacy will give the audience the feel of once again taking in a play at a theater — socially distanced of course. However, the film’s greatness ends with the overall atmosphere, and Boseman’s performance. The film, in its entirety, is only okay. The film drags towards the middle, with those sudden pulses of electricity that brings it back to life. I wish I could say that I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this, but it’s all too average.
Ma Rainey’s chances for gold are in full swing. Boseman and Davis are looking at nominations in their respective categories, while the film may pick up nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. The film will continue to resonate with audience members, which I can respect, even if it wasn’t quite the toe-tapper we all expected.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Directed by: George C. Wolfe
Written: Ruben Santiago-Hudson and August Wilson
Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, and Jeremy Shamos