“Uh one… and uh two… and uh you know what to do!” In the context of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s narrative, this is how several of the blues tracks so central to Netflix’s upcoming musical drama gets counted in by band leader Cutler (Colman Domingo). In the bigger meta sense of this fiery production though, it’s also a directive aimed straight at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to just give Chadwick Boseman the Oscar for Best Actor right now.
As Levee, an upstart trumpet player whose ambitions are as bright as his past is dark, Boseman turns in an incendiary, career-best performance. Tragically, it’s also his last as the 43-year old actor shockingly passed away from cancer just three months ago, after secretly waging a private battle against the disease. While it will always be his role as Marvel’s Black Panther that will bring Boseman his widest acclaim and act as the memorialized figurehead of his entire career, it’s this far more dramatically meaty showing that represents the true depths of the talent we’ve sadly now lost.
It’s not his character’s name up on the marquee though. Oscar-winner Viola Davis stars as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the real-life legendary “Mother of Blues” first brought to dramatized life in acclaimed American playwright August Wilson’s play of the same name. Produced by Denzel Washington as the second entry in his deal to adapt ten of Wilson’s iconic plays to screen (Fences, which earned Davis her Oscar, was the first), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is directed by Tony Award-winning playwright George C. Wolfe and tells of a fictionalized – and fateful – recording session in 1920s Chicago to capture Ma Rainey’s titular album. “Black Bottom”, by the way, refers to both a dance and a neighbourhood in Detroit at the time, but the social commentary double entendre is hard to miss.
Domingo’s Cutler leads Ma’s regular band members and fellow veterans Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) through rehearsals in a dingy basement room below the recording studio as they wait on the late diva-like arrival of their lead singer. Causing disruptions in her absence is Levee, the new kid coming in with revolutionary ideas about how to change up their usual musical offerings to appeal to a younger audience. Revolutions are seldomly free of bloodshed though, both metaphorical and literal. Especially when the revolt is against a nigh-tyrannical figure like Ma Rainey.
Caked in a combo of garish raccoon-like makeup and shimmering layers of sweat, Davis’ trailblazing songstress is more a force of nature than a character. Not only an openly unapologetic black lesbian brazenly bucking the social norms of the time, Ma frequently also uses her fame (and infamy) to intimidate and bark orders at the white male studio bosses who want to make money off her music. While the script treats her character a bit more cursorily than I would have liked, Davis just owns it all as she stomps through scenes, a roaring kaiju in grease-paint and a buoyantly bosomy dress (Davis used a bodysuit and costume tricks to achieve a distinct body type and look inspired by her own aunt).
But, despite it being named after her, Davis’ Ma is often secondary to the conflict at the crux of this film. It’s Boseman’s Levee that acts as the engine to this story. His aforementioned iconoclasm puts him at odds with the other black band members (portrayed superbly, with special mention going to Domingo) who are just content to do a gig for a paycheck as stipulated by their white recording bosses. Much to the talented Levee’s dismay, pragmatism trumps the pursuit of art and pride for them. At least on the surface, as there are some serious depths that get plumbed later. Levee’s open sexual attraction to Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylor Paige) also puts him in the sights of the growling singer who wants to hear none of his new ideas, setting the stage for an explosive clash of wills and personalities.
Award-winning actor/writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapts Wilson’s iconic words, losing none of the vim and vigor in translation. Wilson’s work has always been about translating the troubling experiences of African Americans through the ages without a filter. And while Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom deals with the politics of the time, it’s sadly, frustratingly, often also a reflection of modern struggles still being waged a century later. In Boseman’s anguished, angry, and broken Levee you see the faces of the simmering youth of today. He has been emotionally maimed by the actions against and by his forbearers, setting him on a dangerous vector if he cannot use his talents to break free.
The parallels between the real-life Boseman is also stark and hard-hitting – Levee is Boseman if the actor had not dedicated himself to overcoming his challenges, allowing his craft to inform and uplift both those who shared the colour of his skin and those who did not. It’s powerful, layered stuff.
On top of that, despite Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s stage play roots being fairly evident in its limited scenery and blustery cut-free monologues (this is truly an actor’s film), Wolfe still imbues it all with some unexpectedly high-value feature film polish. Most notably the cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler stands out immediately, with subtle but effective camera pans, zooms, and swoops, backed by gorgeous lighting. Branford Marsalis’s score can be a tad overzealous at times, used to falsely bump up the film’s few inert spots, but overall it’s fantastic. So too the film’s costumery and production design also excel to the point where it comes as no surprise that Netflix is looking to throw several hats in the ring when it comes to major awards consideration.
While I think most of these elements fully deserve to be in the conversation come awards time, it’s Boseman’s name that will probably dominate it. When the Oscars nominated Black Panther for Best Picture a few years back, in the wake of the Marvel blockbuster’s record-breaking success and status as a global phenomenon, it was painfully obvious that this was merely a populist consolation prize. A perfunctory nod from a traditionally stodgy organization to try and keep the masses appeased, but which never really stood a chance at winning. Things are very different this time around.
When Boseman inevitably pops up on the list of nominees – and very likely wins posthumously – it won’t be a consolation prize. This will be the just reward for a relatively short but powerful body of work from a supremely talented actor (and by all accounts amazing human being). A feat that makes the tragedy of him not being around anymore to actually see this all so much more heartbreaking.
Last Updated: November 26, 2020