Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: An August Wilson Classic on Netflix
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an amazing array of work that has been brought to the screen with help from Denzel Washington, who has been designated by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s estate as the shepherd of his legacy. Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman get the meatiest roles here — and make the most of absolutely every second they’re on camera.
There’s an undeniable pain in watching Chadwick Boseman give his final performance in Netflix’s adaptation of the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is now streaming. Boseman, who died from colon cancer in August, plays Levee, an ambitious yet volatile trumpeter, a talented, tragic figure who tempts fate and questions God. In the role, he comes off as charming, seductive, furious, and, ultimately broken. His performance forces you to break out into applause. Only to remember that he passed on…
Originally staged on Broadway in 1984, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place over a single day at a recording studio in Chicago. Here, Ma Rainey is required to work on some of her tracks. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson only slightly extend the scope, introducing Ma and her band by opening the movie with footage of them on tour. This prelude quickly establishes the dynamics of the characters.
This is Ma’s show, but Levee intends to change it…
Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) insists on getting her Coca-Cola, or she’s not going to sing! She and her mini-entourage arrived to the studio an hour late. And she appears to be a Diva at work. Her demands seem to be extremely unreasonable. But we later learn that these fits are all in an effort for Ma to reclaim her power. That no one will take advantage of her. So, it has nothing to do with being a Diva or the Coca-Cola!
“They don’t care nothin’ about me,” she states. “All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that, and they gonna treat me the way I wanna be treated no matter how much it hurt them.”
Ma faces pressure from her white manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), and white recording studio owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne.) They want her to sign the contracts that will ultimately give them control over her music. She deliberately makes it as difficult as possible for them to get it. Her gruff demeanor is a defense mechanism, one she uses against the forces of capitalism. Even if she knows its inevitable.
Davis transforms into Ma, wearing heavy padding and heavy eyeliner. There’s a weariness to her stride, but she’s also undeniably sexy, especially when she sings in her throaty tones.
Meanwhile, her band is mostly tucked away in a stuffy room at the recording studio. Waiting for her entrance. Their conversations and banter are such a delight! Seasoned with the rich flavor of period-specific Black American dialect. The pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) appears to be the reasonable statesman, imparting wisdom. Bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) is a straight-shooter focused on getting the music just right; Cutler is the measured mediator; whose goal is to keep the band together.
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Meanwhile there’s Levee, the young, restless trumpeter who yearns to make “real music” with his own band someday. Because he tired of playing the same old stuff. Levee is provocative, braggadocios, calculative, bitter, hot-tempered, and trouble according to Ma. Boseman put up an electrifying performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. He comes off as ambitious yet volatile too…
The tragic end of the movie is mind wrecking and unexpected too. The fact that one of Levee`s songs that he did not get a chance to record is taken on by white folks highlights the unfairness and social injustices. One could have thought that Levee will have a shot at recording his own music…
There is a lot to say about this spectacular movie! Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is must watch. It is thrilling and will leave you with a lot of mixed feelings. Overall, it’s a great movie to watch because of its thought provocative tendencies.
The history of white exploitation of Black culture is by now well-documented, and Wilson’s play is part of a canon of art and criticism that has laid these sins bare. In bringing Wilson’s voice to a wider audience, Wolfe and his team have created an indelible composition and striking performances, which are owned by their Black creators and can’t be taken away.