Film review by Jason Day of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the 2020 drama about the recording of a blues album in the 1920’s. Starring Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman and directed by George C. Wolfe.
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During a fraught recording session – at the height of an uncomfortable summer – for blues artist Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) who has just signed with a white-owned recording studio, tensions rise between Ma, her ambitious horn player (Chadwick Boseman) and her new management team.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they want is my voice.Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) on being signed by white record producers.
There is a performer in this film who has unparalleled screen time – exactly on a par with leading actress Davis – but one who I cannot credit in the cast section of this review.
That character – for it is not a person – is human sweat.
Yes, perspiration. Bodily moistness. Glow or glisten, as ladies may have it.
And there’s a lot of it on display here. Just as director George C. Wolfe intended, the sweat, energy and life poured by an artist into their performance, stands as proudly as a character in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as the title character and her support community.
So, Oscar-nominated Davis – subdued, but growling the occasional invective with the customary passion we expect from her – is this put through her paces. Laden in beautiful – but heavy – costumes, hairstyling and make-up (all crooked, gold teeth and silver fillings), her Ma Rainey is seen in all her sweat-soaked, mascara-streaming glory.
She might seem to be pushing for an Oscar-worthy performance with all this – like Charlize Theron who so successfully beget her glamorous image in Monster (2003) – but what a push it is. Her Ma Rainey, cow-eyed but not cowed, slouched but still standing proud, browbeaten but not beaten, roars into life when her artistic credentials and needs are called into question.
During her scene in the sun, she describes – as set out in the quote at the top of this review – how her white producers and managers are using her like a whore, raping her voice corporately. It’s a magisterial performance and, to date, could lay claim to being her best.
Note the the final scene and the final act we see are a white band of mostly men. They give what they clearly feel is their all but in comparison to Ma Rainey and her crew, who sweat, toil and nearly break themselves, their performance is resolutely pedestrian.
BTW, Maxayn Lewis provides Ma’s distinctive singing voice.
Up there with her is the extraordinary, late and much-missed Chadwick Boseman as Levee, the horn player who clashes with that renowned artistic temperament.
Boseman died last year of the colon cancer he was first diagnosed with in 2016, not something that led him to ‘let up’ (he starred in 10 movies during the intervening five years).
Understandably, he looks quite different to the muscular superhero character he portrayed in Black Panther (2018). His performance here is one that crackles and fizzes with an exuberant excess of energy; his Levee is a man who, even when he’s physically motionless, never appears to be still.
He is a bundle of raw, dangerous energy, explained in part because of a shocking revelation Levee makes that jolts the audience from its seat. He describes, in moving terms but delivered with a factual, documentary-like emotionless, the gang rape of his mother when he was very young and being paralysed by fright and incomprehension.
In adulthood, this paralysis has been replaced with a need to chatter constantly and bounce off the walls, as if standing still will set him back in that place where, as a child, he was unable to move and help his mother.
The film is dedicated to him and he is nominated for a posthumous Best Actor Oscar. Ignore everything else and focus solely on what he does in this movie; he has earned a win in my opinion.
Cast & credits
Director: George C. Wolfe. 1hr 34 mins/94 mins. Netflix. (15).
Producers: Todd Black, Denzel Washington, Dany Wolf.
Writer: Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
Camera: Tobias A. Schliessler.
Music: Branford Marsalis.
Sets: Mark Ricker.
Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Dusan Brown, Joshua Harto, Quinn VanAntwerp.