By Liz Lopez
Many of us have heard of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as the last film performance by the late Chadwick Boseman and have highly anticipated it. The new Netflix film is directed by George C. Wolfe based on the acclaimed play by August Wilson, adapted by film and television series actor, Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Selma, American Gangster, Devil’s Advocate, Law and Order). The play is inspired by real life blues singer Ma Rainey and set in Chicago one day in 1927. The entire ensemble of cast members is excellent individually and together to make this poignant story one not to be missed. Without a doubt, it is Viola Davis and Chad Boseman who provide Oscar worthy performances. Davis is almost unrecognizable as Ma Rainey when she arrives late to the recording session. She is captivating and most definitely calls the shots on her time and talent. Boseman is Levee, a young and hotheaded trumpet player with Ma’s band, but he also has plans to lead his own band and is writing songs to record with musicians he selects. The dialogue for each artist is well – written and performed so spectacularly, that it leaves the audience wanting more at the end. As the credits roll, we sit quietly and remember.
Make no mistake, this film will lead audience members to feel an array of emotions from high to low and is quite an experience. Davis as Ma Rainey does not flinch at letting the recording studio agent and executives know exactly what she wants and will get if they want to use her talent. She is very aware of how things operate by white owned studios and she will remain in control of her music and talent as much as she can. Certainly, she has a “soft” side to her strong personality, but she is not allowing anyone to exploit what she knows is often done. Levee wants what he wants as well, but Ma Rainey rules it all. Boseman’s performances in the small room downstairs where the band awaits the boss and during breaks leave the audience mesmerized as he relates parts of his life to the elder musicians.
Ma Rainey’s band has experienced musicians, bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), led by Cutler (Colman Domingo). Waiting on the over – confident Levee to rehearse is an issue, as is his attitude with the elders. The scenes where the band waits contain the passionate monologues and some heavy emotion, so by the time Ma Rainey arrives with her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), the emotional heat is already turned up. Added to this is are the scenes of the racial tensions of Chicago in 1927.
Boseman’s passing in August devastated many, and this film performance is not to be missed even though it is hard not to watch and feel heartbroken. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (94 minutes long and rated R) begins streaming on Netflix Friday, December 18.