A Pure firepower detonation is what’s on offer in this film version of August Wilson’s 1982 play. It can be declarative and theatrical, but it is also fiercely intelligent and violently focused, an opera of passion and pain. We see African-American musicians hanging around a white-owned studio in Chicago on a sweltering and hot day in the 1920s, waiting for legendary blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey to show up with her entourage so they can record an album. The title track is expected to be their live hit, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and the drama envisions a certain aggressive trumpeter in the band named Levee looking to have his own cover recorded. A simmering discussion of how this song will be organized and performed forms the basis for a confrontation about race, sex, and power.
Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey with tremendous haughtiness: Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth I never came to Hampton Court with a more magnificent display or more queenly prerogative than Davis’s Rainey making her entrance, with her own lovers and court favorites, sweating for the temperature, his sore feet, and the incompetence of the studio heads. And Chadwick Boseman delivers a poignant performance as the fiercely talented but insecure Levee, crucified by a childhood experience of racist violence and dreaming of leading his own gang.
This is Boseman’s last performance on screen, and what a glorious performance to come out of. It’s a head butting confrontation galactic: Davis and Boseman are each the immovable object and the irresistible force. Interestingly, they are both concerned about their feet. Poor Levee just spent every penny on a classy pair of sparkly shoes and is always showing them, jumping and dancing like a little boy. Ma Rainey’s feet, on the other hand, are dying. We see her walking down the stairs of her hotel with discomfort, however, her rolling and heavy gait is part of what imposes her authority in the room. He gets to wear a pair of comfortable indoor slippers in the studio and doesn’t move anywhere he doesn’t want to.
Levee, without Ma’s permission, has prepared an ingenious remake of Black Bottom that minimizes his slow, bluesy voice and gives a more demanding and dynamic orchestration for the guys in the band: Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo). ), Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and, of course, Levee himself with his flashy trumpet. This is with the canny collusion of white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and studio head Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), who feel this is the way to turn it into a lucrative crossover success.
Ma angrily rejects the remake, feeling, precisely, that this means being overshadowed and that Levee wants to use his prestige as a launching pad for his own stardom. The only man she wants to show off is her own teenage nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who whimsically wants to be allowed to enter the number, even though he stutters. To increase the tension, he has brought along his beautiful girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who is dangerously in love with Levee.
So who has the power in this contest of wills? In a way, it is Ma Rainey herself: she is the talent, she must be appeased and everything depends on her; however, the band is not very impressed by its ability to connect with non-black audiences.
Levee has her own power with new ideas about music, but it is the deceptive direction that controls her, and tragedy and violence are ignited by the band’s mockery of Levee’s sycophantic attitude towards these white bosses. It triggers Levee’s own memories of racist violence and humiliation, and while others in the band get stage speeches as well, there’s something a bit artificial about these theatrical arias. But they are delivered with such intensity, and the movie packs a genuine punch in its final scene, showing how Levee’s talent is to be exploited and how black culture itself is meant to be appropriated.
Boseman’s face is so open, so transparent, so needy: it is a reed instrument for every painful emotion. It is such a generous representation: the representation of a man sacrificed on the altar of his own past.
• Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is in theaters starting December 4 and on Netflix starting December 18.
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