Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a must-watch on Netflix

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020): (L to R)Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, and Colman Domingo as Cutler.Cr. David Lee / Netflix
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020): (L to R)Glynn Turman as Toldeo, Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Michael Potts as Slow Drag, and Colman Domingo as Cutler.Cr. David Lee / Netflix /

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman

August Wilson distills the perfect metaphor for the tone and trajectory of his play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom during its conclusion – the last thing the audience hears is “a trumpet” that “begins to play a low, wailing solo,” then “builds in intensity and pitch and hits a high final note”. A note that screams from the bottom to the top of its register contains all the anger, praise, and undying hope that Wilson’s words explore.

It’s almost surprising that Denzel Washington, who co-produced Netflix’s movie adaptation of Wilson’s play (out on the streaming service today), aspires to make film versions of the eight other entries in the Century Cycle – after 2016’s Fences, and now this.

Directed – and more impressively staged – by George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom far and away stands just fine on its own grounded, confident feet. It helps that the movie captures lightning in a bottle in the form of Chadwick Boseman’s Levee, doesn’t stray too far from its source material, and embraces the musicality baked into the film’s DNA.

Starring Viola Davis as the titular Ma Rainey, Black Bottom introduces us to a 1920s blues diva via her audience members, who seek an escape from the strifes of the world by seeing her perform. She puts on shows in tents and concert halls alike, and at her back is her band, made up of hothead trumpeter Levee (Boseman), wise pianist Toledo (an excellently sympathetic Glynn Turman), smooth bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and observant trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo). Ma meets her band in a sweltering Chicago recording studio, with coquettish groupie Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) in tow, to make some songs produced by aloof owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and hapless manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos).

The play solely takes place in the rehearsal room and studio settings, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation takes a few liberties from the text by including moments set in other locations, most of which aim to generalize the characters’ stories as they apply to 1920s race relations – ranging from unnecessarily simplistic to inferentially cheap. But Black Bottom contains a tried-and-true formula at its core: get an ensemble of reliably talented actors to put on an incredibly well-written play, and just let the thing cook. This movie spends most of its economic runtime admiring bodies, faces, and emotions, most of all those of Chadwick Boseman and his fiery, confused, tragic Levee.

It’s a masterstroke of casting, seeing as Boseman was riding high off the success of Black Panther and could have easily attached himself to more outwardly public roles in more outwardly public projects. In fact, one could make the argument that Levee plays directly against Boseman’s type established in the regal, cerebral T’Challa. But Black Bottom – and Boseman by congruence – spends energy toward doing right by the character of Levee first and foremost. It begs you to minimize preconceptions of Boseman’s career – and, unfortunately, whole life – and consider him ultimately as a dynamic actor, a force of nature that could imbue God but was qualified to take on God, too. He does nothing less than steal Black Bottom.

As a film, Black Bottom is most engaging when it’s given room to act like a piece of music itself. Little things, like when two characters bonk haphazard piano keys during a seduction sequence, or when band members retort to points of contention in conversations with an attacking blast of the horn, make the viewing experience layered and exciting throughout. It’s hard not to think of Levee’s conversations with Sturdyvant as a counterpoint of sorts, their clashing intentions fighting to take control of the conversation (the stairs, lines on a musical staff) and refusing to be the harmony to the other’s melody. Even a sequence that devotes ample time to displaying the vinyl live-recording process swoons with gold-plated nostalgia for the texture of a rich history of American music.

Speaking of, this history comes through in the spirit of Ma, provided a subtle composure by the incomparable Davis. Her Ma acts as an inverse to Levee, making for some brilliant scenes – whereas the latter bursts frontloaded with energy, Ma carries with her a simmering, tired comprehension of her place in the world, Davis giving away clues to her momentary desires piece by patient piece. It makes for some fascinating, nonobvious directorial choices regarding Ma, and supposes her in dialogue with today’s familiar dispositions more directly than the others, but what a blast to watch.

The movie doesn’t shy away from its theatrical origins, adopting unobtrusive cinematography from Tobias A. Schliessler (A Wrinkle in Time, Beauty and the Beast) and editing from Andrew Mondshein (The Sixth Sense) that allow for a personable, vivid screening. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis provides a score clearly indebted to the good old blues to support the main event.

Just as Ma says, “the more music you got in the world, the fuller it is.”

It’s just one of many theories and ideas – played or spoken – that are offered in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but it’s undoubtedly one of the truest.

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