Director: George C. Wolfe | Scenario: Ruben Santiago-Hudson | Discard: Viola Davis (Ma Rainey), Chadwick Boseman (Levee), Colman Domingo (Cutler), Glynn Turman (Toledo), Michael Potts (Slow Drag), Jeremy Shamos (Irvin), Jonny Coyne (Sturdyvant), Taylour Paige (Dussie Mae) ea | Playtime: 94 minutes | Year: 2020
Levee Green thinks of himself as a pear. The record producer of Ma Rainey, the great singer of her group, chose her swing version of her most famous song to record. He also wants to record some of Green’s own songs. But when Ma herself appears in the studio, she quickly puts an end to Levee’s arrogant illusions that “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is being played in a way other than she intended. Especially Levee’s catchy intro will be revamped, as his nephew is allowed to speak in it. Only problem: he stutters like crazy.
These circumstances primarily set the stage for the hidden tensions between the old guard in 1927 blues music and the wave of swinging newbies, but also between black musicians and the bosses who control the music world. In the center is the fictional Levee, Chadwick Boseman’s newest film character, who died this year. We see how easily he handles the scenes, even if he is surrounded by many talented actors. Boseman exorcises the camera with his charm. A cliché in which we only see him listening is already a feast for the eyes. He plays it controlled and dazzling at the same time.
My Rainey is anything but fictional. However, it is a film adaptation of a play of the same name around the historic blues singer. She was one of the very first black artists of any importance, an exception to the United States of the 1920s. Levee is a creation of the writer August Wilson, who symbolizes the black artist on the fringes, with all the talent and ambition in him. As a future sounding trumpeter, he is well ahead of his time. And what does that mean for a black man at this time? Good.
Viola Davis doesn’t need to show a lot of interpretation for her title role, but she goes deep in intensity. A look from Ma Rainey breaks. And under the thick layer of makeup, the actress became almost unrecognizable. A studio manager is annoyed by her diva demeanor and she dominates the group, but she tells her confidant Cutler what is behind it. Davis was also instrumental in this earlier film adaptation of Wilson, Fences, for which she won an Oscar. Then Denzel directed and starred in Washington, now he’s just producing.
With the adaptations on stage, the question is always whether it just doesn’t look like a bunch of cameras were placed on a theater performance. At the beginning and at the end of Ma Rainey’s black background some additions were made to legitimize the film adaptation. But the lion’s share takes place in a single music studio. The film relies mainly on sharp dialogue and solid acting performances. The images are smooth, but not at their most cinematic. But why wouldn’t that be enough? It’s a topical story anyway, performed by a largely black cast and crew. It shouldn’t be special, but everyone knows it.
Boseman’s death ensures that many more eyes are on this film than if he had been alive. And so the question soon becomes how this is justified. It is also very conceivable that this would earn him an Oscar posthumously. What he shows here justifies this golden statue. Great acting talent died with him. Let Ma Rainey’s black background but open the eyes of anyone who doubts it admirably. Boseman would have always been the star of this movie, only now is he getting even more deserved attention for it.
Ma Rainey’s black background can be seen on Netflix.