Director: George C Wolfe
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman
On 28th August this year the world stopped at the news Chadwick Boseman had died. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom arrives now on Netflix labored with the weight of containing the last performance of this firebrand young actor, taken from us just as he was taking flight. It is a great performance. Arguably the greatest aspect of a film that might’ve otherwise slipped quietly by the wayside, in spite of its flourishes. It’s a relatively small film – designed as such – but Boseman makes it feel big.
It’s an uncommonly hot day in Chicago, Illinois, 1927, and a band of Black musicians from Georgia are assembling to record some songs at the behest of a couple of white record company stooges. Principally, the session is pitched around the virtuoso talents of renowned vocalist Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), but in the run-up to it we come to see a vying of ideals within the group. Chiefly this is thanks to upstart trumpeter, Levee (Boseman). At heart he’s a lead himself, struggling to be contained within a travelling accompaniment band – a metaphor for his position in society at large.
While Ma Rainey skirts coy lesbian flirtations with backing singer Dussie Mae (Taylour Page) in the studio space, her musicians are decamped below in a basement room where they’re supposed to be practicing. More often they’re verbally sparring and telling tales. Boseman holds court here, particularly when recounting a figuratively and literally scarring tale of an encounter with violently racist white men, experienced at a tender age. Down there with him are pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), trombone man Cutler (Colman Domingo) and bassist ‘Slow Drag’ (Michael Potts).
These great supporting players shape for us a microcosm of Black living in the 1920s, with particular focus on the tired, dogged lifelong experience of playing second fiddle to the Caucasian majority. Ma Rainey’s credence as a celebrity and venerated singer allows her the privilege of a diva’s temperament, but there’s also a pronounced sense that she is also being tolerated. She is the only one among the musicians with the nerve and gumption to challenge the white men in the booth. Davis’ performance goes big as she rattles through her own soliloquy on the topic of feeling unappreciated, while the session grows humorously calamitous. It stops and starts, stops and starts, and the in-between places allow these actors to rattle through handsomely crafted dialogue.
George C Wolfe’s picture reflects the sweltering atmosphere between the actors. Aside from the permanent membrane of glistening sweat covering Davis’ Ma Rainey, the picture is bathed in warm colours. The sickly yellow glow from naked lightbulbs make basement spaces seem as scorched as if the roof had been taken off the building. And, while Levee and Ma Rainey are at odds when it comes to the direction of their music; their shared sexual appetite for the aforementioned Dussie Mae ensures that Black Bottom plays itself hot under the collar as well.
Handsome as it all is, it can’t quite escape the feel of also-ran prestige material designed to snare up a few scant nominations. One of those second tier titles that isn’t scaled to sweep awards season, but has enough evident talent to get noticed in the peripheries… and forgotten soon after. Based on a play by August Wilson, Wolfe never quite manages to escape the piece’s traditionally theatrical roots. Nor does he particularly try. He lets his actors power this piece, and power it they do.
And yes, particularly Boseman. It’d be tempting to try and burn significance into the way he plays the part, knowing now as we do the struggle he was maintaining in secret. But the truth of the man is that he brought this kind of fire as a matter of course. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of his finest efforts, for sure, but Boseman would’ve brought it ten, twenty, thirty more times had he been given the opportunity. That’s the kind of player he was. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a good enough movie, but it stands as an incredibly fine memorial because of who Boseman was, always.