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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
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by Jay Seaver

"It is a shame we won't see more Chadwick Boseman performances like this."
4 stars

So many of Chadwick Boseman's obituaries mentioned his love for and involvement in the theater that it seems fitting and proper that this, rather than something from Marvel, will be his last work - if his time had to be cut this short, at least a lot of people will get to see him performing something that is likely not far removed from August Wilson's play. And while it's not always amazing, it's quite good, and that's fitting too: It highlights that his career and life was cut short, a look at what could have been.

Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) was known as the Mother of the Blues and a big star in Black America during the 1920s, when much of that population was moving north. In 1927, her tour was in Chicago, and her backing band included Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a talented and ambitious trumpet player who wants center stage for himself. Ma's manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and record producer Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) have set aside time to cut an album, and while pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and trombone player and Ma's #2 Cutler (Colman Domingo) arrive on time, both Ma and Levee want to make an entrance, with Ma bringing girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). She wants Sylvester to record the introduction to her famous "Black Bottom" song, rejecting the new, more contemporary arrangement Levee has supplied.

Screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and director George C. Wolfe both have theatrical roots, but the opening is very much an example of what film can do without dialogue, both in how it sets the stage by showing the audience how the great migration from the rural South to the urban North was beginning to transform Black culture, reminding audiences that many of these people still had one foot in the previous status quo, and then laying out the friction between Ma and Levee with some clear storytelling disguised as a performance beat. It still works as a movie after that but you can see its stagebound origins: There's little action but a lot of talking back and forth as we wait for something to happen, with characters telling stories, explaining themselves, and building small things up to something bigger. It's not always quite as effective when the cast isn't in the same room, reacting to the audience, but Wolfe and the other filmmakers do a nice job of defining spaces, following the actors with the camera, and putting the audience in the middle of things rather than having them sitting back.

The patter and showmanship makes its two central performances more fun than they seemingly should be. Both Ma and Levee are towering displays of ego, the sort that performers need to both get onto the stage and build names for themselves, but which start to eat a person from within, and while that can be fascinating, a barrage of it can be a lot. Here, Viola Davis is at times almost grotesque as Ma, aided by gaudy gold teeth and makeup choices that simultaneously emphasize her as gaudy but also worn-down, but it only takes a little bit of talk to see what builds that. Ma has seen great success but whether because of her nature or because of the world she lives in, she seldom seems to actually enjoy it; she's too well aware that if she doesn't keep pushing everyone from the trumpet player to her white manager to anyone else is going to try and get a piece of what she's earned. Even the brief moments where she lets her guard down to talk about musical inspiration with Cutler are pessimistic; Davis makes sure that while the audience may understand, respect, and sympathize with Ma Rainey, she is difficult to like.

Boseman's Levee isn't quite as big a personality as Ma, but that's not for lack of trying on the character's part. He's right on the line of being too big for his britches and what he needs to be, the sort of guy we might be set up to like in another movie but who is just the right bit too much here. Boseman walks a fine line in finding the exact right amount of charisma - Levee has something, but not enough to fool people who know better, a little silly next to the journeyman musicians he spends most of his time with but not so much that one couldn't see him rising higher. Boseman goes back-and-forth with the talented supporting cast while Davis makes damn sure nobody ever steals a scene from Ma, and when the story pulls back some layers on Levee, Boseman digs into what's underneath but holds back the last little bit, as the idea is not to make the world revolve around him.

Wolfe and his team pick the pace up as recording actually starts, and though they've spent a lot of time on how the music business in the 1920s could be especially dirty, there's still a lot of delight in every facet of the music itself that doesn't quite become nostalgia, right down to lovingly examining the actual tools used to record onto vinyl. Branford Marsalis's score blends seamlessly into what appear to at least partially be original Ma Rainey recordings, and the filmmakers do nifty work in making the recording session satisfying even as tension is still mounting.

The film climaxes on a moment that is not quite out of nowhere but close enough that one wonders if the playwright August Wilson and/or screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson were caught flat by how their inspirations didn't fit a single narrative and decided to roll with the chaos. There are worse storytelling sins than that, I guess, and it does let the filmmakers underline one of their main points in its final scenes. In doing so, it almost becomes too much a movie, concerned with what happens rather than hours people tell us about it, which is the essence of theater - and maybe the blues.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33925&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/01/20 15:07:16
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USA
  25-Nov-2020 (R)

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