The Mother of all Blues Films?
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (dir) George C. Woolfe
Starring : Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman
Available to stream on Netflix - 4/5
The must see Film to roll off the well-oiled Netflix production line this weekend, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is a mesmerising feature length production directed by George C.Wolfe set in 1920s Chicago and based on August Wilson’s 1982 stage play.
There are some familiar personnel involved here including Denzil Washington who starred in another Film written by Wilson, Fences, although this time as Executive Producer. However this latest film is garnering plenty of interest for Oscar nominations and with good reason. Not only for the stand-out performance by Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in the lead role, but the plucky and tenacious Trumpeter, Levee, in this case Chadwick Boseman.
We see an early flash of fire between the two characters during a Dance Hall Concert performance where Levee steps out of line, quite literally, to gain the spotlight, a pre-cursor leading us to the crux of the movie, a recording session in hot, sticky Chicago. The venue: Hot Rhythm Recording Studios. Ma’s Blues Band arrive promptly and are ushered to the Basement room by Irvin, Ma’s Agent, already harassed by the anxious Producer, Mel Sturdyvant, haggling and twitching over loss of studio time. There’s an immediate sense of apartheid, with Black below White, and the Director uses the confined space to effect by allowing the Musicians characters to build in their frank exchanges. The first conflict comes as Levee arrives late after buying a pair of yellow, snappy shoes and bemoans the idea of rehearsing well-trodden ground with the songs they will record upstairs.
‘You’re not brave enough to take on the white man’ is the cheap jibe directed at Levee from Pianist Toledo, which pushes his buttons as he reveals witnessing a brutal act of sexual violence inflicted on his mother by a group of white Policeman. Just eight years old at the time, he still bears both the mental and physical scarring as he rips open his shirt showing a wound covering his chest, a result of his attempts to halt the attack. He’s boastful, precocious but of course we are now sympathetic to him. Boseman’s performance is audacious and all the more tragic when you understand this was his last film role, before his tragic and untimely death to bowel cancer at 44 years of age this year.
Meanwhile upstairs, Irving is straining every sinew to keep the project on track, when Ma Rainey eventually arrives with swagger and her nephew and friend in toe. By this stage in her career, the real Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey was already pronounced ‘Mother of the Blues’ and a forerunner in the embryonic phase of Blues music. She wastes not a second in laying down her terms: chilled Coca-Cola from the Deli, a change of arrangement for one of the songs and a spoken intro for Sylvester, her nephew, who carries a nervous stammer.
It’s to Wolfe’s credit that he recreates a theatre-ey feel to the film and portrays the stark contrast between between: Black or White, Musician or Executive which is ameliorated throughout the film by Irving’s interventions with money and charisma. Before you know it, the film races in to the third act and some well deserved payback for our emotional investment by Ma and her Band nailing the records and providing a payday for all.
Although there was some clues, the Coda is less obvious and and we are left with the harsh reality: that for all Levee’s trumpeting talent and unflinching self-belief, his own songs that were declined as ‘not the sort of thing we record’ we eventually see being performed under devious methods by a ‘traditional’ White Band. Viola Davis is tipped to be an Oscar nominee this year and surely so must Chadwick Boseman, as her support. I've always thought the Oscars to be an arbitrary way of recognising talent, so if Boseman is posthumously awarded this year, that's absolutely fine with me. His talent will be sorely missed.