Film

Review: Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman Bring Energy, Urgency to August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

If you asked me who my favorite playwright of all time is, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer August Wilson. I was living in New York City in 1990 when I saw The Piano Lesson on Broadway, and it changed my life. I was only in my early 20s and didn’t have a clear sense of everything live theater could be. Five years later, I was back in Chicago and through connections at the Goodman Theatre, I was able to attend the world premiere of Wilson’s Seven Guitars (which featured Viola Davis in the cast) with an audience made up of a who’s who of Black Chicago royalty. I was so intrigued by Wilson’s writing and the stories he chose to tell that I started researching him, discovering that both plays were part of a 10-play grouping called the Pittsburgh Cycle (some call it the Century Cycle, since each play is set in a different decade of the 20th century).

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Image courtesy of Netflix

Over the years, I managed to see productions—on stage and televised—of most of the other 10 plays, including the 1920s-set Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the only one of the cycle not set in Pittsburgh. Originally staged in 1984, Ma Rainey is set in a Chicago recording studio and was the play Wilson wrote just before Fences. That play was made into a staggering 2016 film starring and directed by Denzel Washington, who also produced the current adaptation of Ma Rainey, a film that just happens to star Davis just as Fences did (she won an Oscar for it, in fact). Here, she puts aside the self-sacrificing wife and mother role and digs in deep to play the legendary real-life “Mother of the Blues,” who has agreed on this sweltering summer day to record a handful of her most popular songs with her regular band, which includes an ambitious and fiery young horn player named Levee, played by the late Chadwick Boseman in his final on-screen appearance.

Because our temptation will be to focus all of our attention on Boseman—and that’s an easy thing to do considering how raw and magnetic he is here—we might almost miss the magic that Davis (who co-starred with Boseman in Get On Up) is conjuring before our eyes, beginning with a physical transformation that includes a gold grill on her teeth, the constant presence of sweat on her brow, and a little extra bounce to her walk to make it clear that Ma waits for no man and all men wait for Ma, which is exactly what happens in this story.

The band members arrive on time and take up residence in the basement rehearsal room. Ma’s white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) paces nervously as he waits for her, while negotiating certain terms with the studio owner (Jonny Coyne); meanwhile, Colman Domingo (as Cutler the trombonist) puts the band through the paces, making sure everyone knows their part. Also in the band are bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman), but when Levee finally arrives, he immediately lets the group know that the studio owner has assured him that they will use his arrangements during the session, something Cutler knows isn’t going to fly with Ma. We know right away that Levee has dreams, even if the path to achieving them isn’t completely clear. He wants to start his own band, playing his own less structured arrangements, exactly the opposite of what he’s being forced to play on this day.

When Ma finally arrives, naturally she’s not alone. She’s got her attentive nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), recently arrived from Georgia, and her curvaceous main squeeze Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who seems more interested in what Ma can buy her and is willing to put up with being groped to get it. Helmed by the esteemed theater director George C. Wolfe, working from an adaptation by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom gets its energy from a combination of Levee’s determination to succeed, even if it means losing this particular gig, and Ma’s unwavering stubbornness —she will have things exactly her way or they won’t happen any way. She digs in her heals about a simple bottle of Coke, for example, because it’s what she was promised, whether she wants it or not. So when these two personalities collide, the screen can barely contain them. Levee knows he can’t win in a battle of wills against Ma, so he attempts to chip away at her in other ways, like setting his sights on Ma’s lady friend.

With a gorgeous score from Branford Marsalis, the film does give us a taste of Ma’s music. But even capturing that on vinyl is a struggle when she decides she wants her stuttering nephew to give a brief spoken intro to one of the recordings. The story takes several dark and angry turns when Levee convinces the band to share some particularly brutal stories about their younger days. At first, we think he genuinely wants to know more about these men, but when he pulls out a violent and horrific story from his childhood, we realize he wanted to show that he’d come from lower depths than any of them, and it’s perhaps the most chilling moment in the production, giving Boseman a chance to show a side to his abilities we rarely got in his biopics and Marvel movies. The sequence also reveals Wilson’s gifts as a writer, to weave the Black experience into his work and make us realize that the story Boseman tells could have taken place in just about any decade before or after the 1920s.

Having watched Boseman closely for the better part of the last eight years, I thought I had a good sense of his range, of what he was capable of as an actor, but in his most recent two films—including another Netflix production, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, released in June—Boseman shows us that he was willing to take on edgier, less polished, not always noble characters and inject them with a bit of his lightning. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, he places that energy next to the natural power loop that is Viola Davis, and there’s little else to do but sit back, be dutifully impressed by everyone in the film, and wonder what might have been. Boseman’s death was always a cause for sadness, but watching him speak the words of August Wilson with such bite makes me fully understand what a loss we have all suffered.

The film is available to stream on Netflix beginning Friday.

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