Debuting Friday on Netflix, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is about as far away as one can get from a stuffy, talky filmed play.
Even during the non-music sequences, it jumps, jives, stomps, blasts and sings.
Executive producer Denzel Washington plans to adapt all 10 of Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson’s plays to the big screen, with Black artists in charge. This is the second, after 2016’s “Fences,” which Washington directed and starred in.
“Fences” was very, very good but “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is incredible, a 94-minute whirlwind of acting genius in a story about music, power and Blackness.
Viola Davis, who won an Oscar for her emotionally rending performance in “Fences” plays real-life blues singer Ma Rainey (1889-1939), virtually the opposite of Rose Maxson.
It’s the 1920s, and Ma and her band are set to make some new records in a Chicago recording studio. White manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) runs around breathlessly, making sure everything is ready.
Three veteran band members, Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), show up, on time. They’re session musicians, skilled, but resigned to playing whatever Ma tells them to.
Trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) is next. He takes his time beforehand, flirting with women, and impulse-buying a beautiful canary-colored pair of shoes. He arrives, boasting about his own talents and about how Ma is going to use his, hotter, more danceable arrangement of her signature song, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Then Ma arrives, late, her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and a pretty young thing named Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), in tow. After bribing a policeman to look the other way after a fender-bender, Irvin tries to get things rolling, but Ma has a few demands. It’s hot in here. Where is my ice-cold Coca-Cola?
Then, she is not going to perform Levee’s arrangement of the song. She’ll do it her way. Next, Sylvester is going to speak the intro to the song, even though he has a stutter. We’ll keep doing it until we get it right, Ma says.
Ma is in the unusual position of holding power over whites. Her records make money, and Irvin and studio owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) will do just about anything to keep her happy.
She understands this situation and exploits it, largely using her power to demand and receive immediate gratification. She also understands that anything long-term, or using her power to help others, are beyond her abilities. Her control could end at any moment.
Davis’ performance, though boisterous and dazzling, is rooted in this situation. In her garish, panda-bear makeup and menacing gold teeth, covered in a thin sheen of sweat, she has an underlying anger and weariness.
It’s more of an effort to hang onto power than to not have it at all, she seems to suggest.
Ma is a powerful force, but Levee gives the film its harmony. He gives a speech about how clever he is about manipulating white men, but in the same moment, he unwittingly succumbs to a power grab by Sturdyvant.
Levee is a powder keg, ferociously talented, but butting heads with everyone, and always sticking his nose in the wrong place, including seducing Dussie Mae, full knowing that she’s Ma’s “property.”
He’s a truly tragic character, untold amounts of talent wasted because of reckless swagger, a survival skill a Black man might adopt in a racist world.
What no one could have known is that the role would be the final one performed by Chadwick Boseman, a brilliant, commanding actor who shockingly died in August at the age of 43.
Boseman specialized in playing heroes, such as Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and the fictitious T’Challa, which is not as easy as he made it look. Too much nobility can make a hero into a stiff, but Boseman’s heroes were inspiring.
Watching Boseman play Levee, full of fire and braggadocio and on a path to self-destruction, is now perhaps quite a bit more poignant than it was meant to be, and devastatingly sad.
If director George C. Wolfe, a veteran of Broadway, but also the 2005 HBO film “Lackawanna Blues,” intended to use Levee’s story arc as a cautionary tale, he has succeeded, doubly so.
Wolfe’s film is amazingly fluid, moving through the story’s interiors like a blues tune, deft, wise and full of sadness. The recording studio has high windows that are dutifully covered up, blocking out the daylight, before work begins. And the “band room” looks like a dank, miserable basement, with no windows.
Perhaps the movie’s most shocking moment is like a nightmare, involving a locked door and a startling visual, possibly symbolizing Levee’s future.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — the title once referred to an area in Detroit, but now has a double-entendre — is a bracing, whirlwind work. It may not exactly pierce the gloom, but it certainly pierces the soul.
For an even better experience, watch it on Netflix with the new, nine-minute animated short “Canvas,” about a widower who has lost his will to paint, until his granddaughter comes to visit.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo
Written by: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Directed by: George C. Wolfe
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes