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"MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM"
(2020) (Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Tensions rise between a legendary, 1920s era blues singer and one of her ambitious backup band members as they record several of her songs.
PLOT:

It's 1927 and Ma Rainey (VIOLA DAVIS) is one of the hottest blues singers in the South, at least among people of her race. She's now arrived in Chicago -- along with her young adult nephew, Sylvester (DUSAN BROWN), and her lover who's several decades younger than her, Dussie Mae (TAYLOUR PAIGE) -- to record some songs in the studio for her white manager, Herb Irvin (JEREMY SHAMOS), and the owner of that place, Mel Sturdyvant (JONNY COYNE).

There's also the backup band consisting of group leader Cutler (COLMAN DOMINGO) on trombone; Toledo (GLYNN TURMAN) on piano; Slow Drag (MICHAEL POTTS) on the bass; and Levee Green (CHADWICK BOSEMAN) on trumpet. The latter is talented but also ambitious and not only has written some of his own songs for Sturdyvant, but has also created a new arrangement for Ma's big hit, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

As a veteran performer who's paid her dues and doesn't suffer fools or anyone else for that matter, she doesn't take kindly to Levee altering her work. Accordingly, she wants to record it her way and the rest of the songs in the order she demands, something that everyone else is more than willing to agree to, including, begrudgingly, Levee. As they try to record the songs and detail their experiences of being black in a white world, tensions rise.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

This year marks the 50th anniversary of my introduction to elementary school education. While I don't recall a great deal from that year -- I was six years old, after all, and a half-century has now passed by -- one thing I do remember is a brief encounter with a young black girl in my class.

Her name completely escapes me, and I don't recall if I did something -- as a white boy growing up in the suburbs of Richmond, VA -- to elicit such a proclamation from her, but I'll never forget her words: "I can do anything you can do and I can do it better."

Looking back on that with lots of hindsight and how many black parents still need to instruct their children nowadays about how to behave to avoid profiling, getting in trouble, or worse, it's obvious someone in her family -- most likely a female figure -- instilled that mindset in her to deal with the realities of growing up black only a few years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act...in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Granted, she had it a lot easier than her generational predecessors, something playwright August Wilson chronicled in his ten-play work known as The Pittsburgh Cycle. In that collection -- that includes "Fences" which was turned into a movie a few years back directed by and starring Denzel Washington -- Wilson examined the black experience in America over various decades.

Another of those works was "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" which opened on Broadway in 1984 (and interestingly was the only one of the ten not to be set in Pittsburg) and focused on one day in the life of the title character, a.k.a. Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, the Mother of the Blues. Known for her unique vocal style, she recorded more than 100 songs and held a lot of sway, something generally unheard of for a black female in the decade in which she worked, the 1920s.

I have no idea if Wilson's earlier play was based in reality, was an amalgamation of events, or simply was a flight of fancy event he concocted via solely his imagination, but the plot -- both in the play and now the movie -- centers around Ma's backup band waiting for her arrival in a Chicago recording studio where they're going to record the title song and others.

As portrayed by Viola Davis (in a performance that's surely going to earn her lots of award love), she's a powerhouse figure, temperamental but gifted, and not shy about pushing around her weight that she's obviously earned in the hard-knock life of being a black female singer in white America. She suffers no fools, is demanding, and is willing to walk out at a moment's notice. That's much to the chagrin of her white manager, Herb Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who will do anything to keep her there, all while the owner of the studio, Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), increasingly loses patience with the diva.

Her younger counterpart is Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his last role before his untimely death, and one that's surely going to likewise earn him award nominations), a gifted trumpeter who's created a new arrangement for the title song and written others for Sturdyvant. He's also scarred by his experience of being and having grown up black and having to deal with various indignities in his life, including a traumatic one from his childhood that he uses to explain his behavior toward whites and his life plan to his fellow bandmates (played by Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts).

Obviously being reverential to the source work, director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have retained the look, feel, and vibe of a stage play, most notably in the dialogue that maintains the rhythms of the Broadway show. It's not distracting -- and the writing and delivery are good -- but it's certainly noticeable.

As are the strong performances all around, especially from Boseman who might make you shed a tear or two, not just from his portrayal of the character here and all the baggage that comes along with that creation, but also future work from the gifted actor that now will never be.

Having seen this, I would love for there to be a more all-encompassing biopic about the title character, but this will certainly suffice, and then some, for now. And if anything, it certainly gives creed to the advice that eventually made its way to my young classmate all those years ago. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed December 14, 2020 / Posted December 18, 2020


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