With a raw emotionality that leaps off the page, the prose of playwright August Wilson finds its apt allegory in Tennessee Williams. While Williams spoke from his Southern upbringing, Wilson lends …
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With a raw emotionality that leaps off the page, the prose of playwright August Wilson finds its apt allegory in Tennessee Williams. While Williams spoke from his Southern upbringing, Wilson lends his searing, insightful voice to the African American experience. Like Williams, the film adaptations of Wilson’s works tend to be stagy affairs, suitable vehicles for the author’s formidable words that often do not transcend their theater strictures.
They are also tailor-made for marvelous acting turns. Eila Kazan’s adaptation of Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” features one of the greatest film acting performances in the history of the medium, Marlon Brando’s tour de force take on Stanley Kowalski.
I repeatedly thought of Brando during “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and the powerhouse performance of Chadwick Boseman. As the headstrong, ambitious Levee Green, the lead trumpeter in the eponymous Ma Rainey’s 1920s blues band, Boseman runs the emotional gambit, from charming to irascible, from witty to dimwitted, from servile to ruthless, from superficial to indescribably complex. It is a magnificent mosaic anchored by two show-stopping monologues, one unearthing a lifelong source of pain and the other finally directing that pain to its ultimate origin. When the late Boseman wins multiple movie awards for this performance, it will not be a lifetime achievement award but a well-deserved honor that, like Heath Ledger’s posthumous Oscar, is a final tribute to a career cut far too short.
The setting of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a recording session in Chicago where Rainey (Viola Davis) and her longtime bandmates gather to press another expectedly popular record of Rainey’s blues songs. Born in Georgia, Rainey was known as the real-life “Mother of the Blues” who was both a contemporary and influence on Bessie Smith and countless early jazz legends.
Arriving characteristically late to the session, Rainey is quickly cast as headstrong and no nonsense. Her demands seem as trivial as they are intractable, from refusing to start until she has bottles of Coca-Cola to her insistence that her stuttering nephew provide the spoken introduction to the titular title song. They are, in fact, part of a delicate balancing act, the means whereby Rainey, a Black bisexual woman in 1920s America, maintains control over her career and the white minders who need her art and must tolerate the artist in the process.
Rainey’s counterpoint is Green, a young whip smart cornet player and composer who aspires to soon lead his own band. Green harbors a reservoir of animus towards the white man, but he lacks Rainey’s savvy and maturity. Rainey’s stubbornness is her means of preservation. Green’s naive obsequity proves his undoing.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” embodies the racial unease of the early 20th century refracted through the prism of blues history. The recording studio seeks to be a sanctuary from racial strife but ultimately cannot evade its effects. The stiffness of director George C. Wolfe’s presentation is tangible and perhaps unavoidable, but the power of the themes and performances carry the day. While Boseman is brilliant, Davis again proves she was born to channel Wilson’s words — her world-weary Rainey grabs the viewer every second Davis is on screen. The sinew connecting and enlivening Davis and Boseman’s towering bookends are the outstanding portrayals of the rest of Rainey’s band: trombonist and de facto leader Cutler (Colman Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), and bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts).
The film uses the early struggles of the black artist in America as a springboard for a racial examination that is both broad and deeply personal. The film does not explore everything about Ma Rainey and her music, but it does delve into the world that made her and others like her. In that respect, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’’ is less a biopic than a biopsy.
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