It is tragic how good Chadwick Boseman is in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a 2020 drama based on the eponymous “Mother of the Blues” (Viola Davis) who became one of the first black singers ever recorded some 100 years ago.
This Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s play is set in 1927 across two rehearsal/recording rooms with Ma Rainey upstairs and her band down below, building Wilson’s study of status into the architecture of the picture. Rainey is a diva with a “use it or lose it” attitude to authority, her years of paying dues written into Davis’ exquisite facial expressions. Transcending the social standing of her race, gender and sexuality, she subtly conveys the precariousness of her position as subject to the whims of white record executives in a society that makes black artists into stars and then harasses them at every turn. How times change.
Levee (Boseman) meanwhile is a swaggering young trumpeter tired of playing “jug band music” and selling his compositions for $5 a pop. Even through his illness the actor’s natural charisma and sensitivity are in full swing, taking monologues like trumpet solos that should earn him the elusive Oscar he deserved for playing James Brown in Get On Up. He and the band riff through Spike Lee-style discourse with an inherent staginess that lacks the spontaneity Levee craves, but the movie is made cinematic by gorgeous photography, costumes and production design. Branford Marsalis’ score adds texture, though the film feels a little light on music.
The detailed dialogue snaps with double-time discussions of how African Americans’ worth is measured in their value to white people. Described by Rainey as “Life’s way of talking,” the blues represents both expression of and freedom from racist oppression and yet is financially exploited by the music industry. This cruel irony leads to a charged if sudden ending and a moving dedication to Boseman, whose work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom finds him at the top of his game.