There’s been a fair amount of hype, and a lot of good reviews for our Monday movie slot this week, which is the 2020 Netflix movie, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. (For any reader living under a rock, Black Bottom is a song & dance, and not Ma Rainey’s own derrière ~ no nudity here folks).
The movie is based on the 1982 play of the same name, by August Wilson, which in turn is based upon the real blues singer Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey (1882-1939). The play is part of a series of 10 plays by Wilson known as The Pittsburg Cycle chronicling 20th-century African-American experience. The producer of the movie, Denzil Washington had made a deal with HBO to produce all ten plays, and he started with Fences, in which he starred with Viola Davis in 2013, but since then the deal has been re-arranged with Netflix, so here we are with the first of the subsequent 9.
This movie, directed by George C Wolfe also stars Viola Davis in the titular rôle, but co-starring Chadwick Boseman as the trumpeter in the band. As I’m sure most readers will know, Boseman died earlier this year from colon cancer at the ridiculous age of 42, during the post production stage of this movie, and this, his last rôle has been lauded as his best.
The movie is set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, Ma’s band turn up to rehearsal, Cutler (Colman Domingo) is the leader and trombonist, Toledo (Glynn Turman) the philosophising piano player, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) the double bass player, and Boseman as the talented but tormented Levee Green. During the rehearsal room scenes, tensions rise between the band and Green and we find out about his horrific back story. When Ma arrives (crashing her car driven by her young nephew in the process) we meet a formidable woman, who won’t do things the way her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and the studio owner Mel Sturdyvant (Johnny Coyne) want her to do, and is also at loggerheads with Levee Green over his wanting to update the songs she sings to a more modern beat. It doesn’t help matters that Levee has the hots for Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae – and she for him. It also naffs everyone off when Ma wants her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) to do the introduction to the Black Bottlom song, as he stutters, and ruins several takes before getting it right.
The movie is all about the characters, and mainly of Rainey and Green. Davis is superb as Rainey, she’s feisty and domineering yet the hard life and hard won fame put the steel in her backbone to overcome any vulnerability, and it’s all there to see in Davis’ eyes. Boseman is on fire, quick~smart, edgy, passionate yet with an underlying torment that finally breaks through in the last 1/3 of the movie.
Davis and Boseman give power house performances, ably accompanied by the supporting cast, but you can’t take your eyes of either of them when they’re doing their thing. The movie though isn’t really like watching a movie, it is more like a stage play itself, not really flowing organically but in acts, 1, 2 and 3. The long impassioned speeches that would be right in a play somehow don’t sit so well in a movie, the set pieces apparent and clunky. The third act delivers a tragedy that felt contrived in spite of the acting ability but the end scene (which wasn’t in the play itself) punches home how black artists were exploited by white gatekeepers, the underlying thread which runs throughout the length of this story.
Fraggle Rating: Super acting, could have done better with the adaptation.