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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
By Elyse Sommer
It's also "a one, a two, you know what to do" for everyone who plays a part in this film adaptation of the second of August Wilson's ten-play cycle about the 20th -Century African-American experience. For starters, there are the two stars of the film's top-to-bottom outstanding cast— Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.
I've had the pleasure of seeing Davis delivering some unforgettable performances. beginning with Lynne Nottage's Intimate Apparel , and including August Wilson's King Hedley II and both the stage and filmed version of Fences which won her an Oscar. Though not as famous as Whoopie Goldberg, who played Ma during its 1984 Broadway premiere, Davis is a magnificent actress who allows herself to completely disappear into a character. Dressed by in period and diva perfect costumes by Ann Roth, she has now topped herself to capture the look as well as the persona of the real blues legend who inspired Wilson (the one of his play cycles with a main character based on a real historical person). If Netflix becomes a winning contender at the Oscars next year, it will most likely be thanks to a best actress award for Davis.
Chadwick Boseman's Levee is an unknown fictional musician, unlike the characters he played in his previous films (Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall). But Boseman turned the volatile, charismatic trumpeter who wants to give Ma Rainey's blues a more modern, jazzy beat into a co-star role. Alas, though it too is Oscar-worthy, it would have to be awarded posthumously since Boseman died last August of colon cancer— which deepens the darkness of his story.
Even trickier than the physical transformation Viola Davis had to go through for her mesmerizing performance was the challenge faced by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and George C. Wolfe. That challenge was to be true to August Wilson's storytelling, but also use the camera to expand and enrich his narrative and characters.
Santiago-Hudson is a Wilson expert, having successfully and sensitively directed 7 Guitars and most recently Jitney. Knowing that Wilson frowned on shortening his plays, he didn't cut those live theater productions. But filming requires a more tightly organized and screen-centric approach. Thus with Santiago-Hudson's streamlined script combined with the work of Director George C. Wolfe and his team, this Ma Rainey's Black Bottom adds up to one of the best and most true-to-its-creator's-intent film adaptations I've seen. That includes the brief musical coda they've added as a potent commentary on the likelihood of black musicians of that time to realize their dreams. I think if August Wilson were still with us, he too would understand what they've done and even approve.
The innovations by multi-prizewinning stage and film director Wolfe (He directed the Broadway stage premiere of Tony Kushner's Angels In America, but not the film) open up the interactions that in Wilson's script remained in that claustrophobic recording studio. The first of these jump cuts takes us back to Ma's days of performing for poor Black Georgia farm folks, before her rousing vocals made her rich and gave her the power to make her white studio agent Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) kowtow to her every whim. The scene-expanding shots also take us to her queenly arrival outside the studio accompanied by her young lesbian girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylor Page), and chauffeured by her nephew Sylvester (Jonny Coyne) .
As the focus shifts from its emphasis of the back and forth between the musicians so does the color palette. For the men's banter old-style sepia tones are used. Inside as well as outside, Ma's scenes are in vivid, character highlighting color, which is especially effective when she forces Irvin to allow her nephew to sing a song to help his stutter even though it takes eight tries.
Like Sylvester, Davis herself sings just one song but she sure knows how to make the most of it. Other singing is expertly dubbed by Maxayn Lewis. Musical arrangements and a dance sequence are in the capable hands of Branford Marsalis and Camille Brown.
Fortunately the Broadway revival of Fences with Viola Davis and Denzel Washington was filmed and is available for rent or purchase at Amazon Prime. So you can see Davis in a less flamboyant but equally impressive role. And for more about August Wilson's check out the chapter on him in the chapter on him in my Author's Album.
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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom by August Wilson
Script Writer: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Directed by George C. Wolfe
A Netflix Original film
Chadwick Boseman as Levee
Viola Davis Viola Davis as Ma Rainey
Colman Domingo as Cutler
Glynn Turman as Toledo
Jeremy Shamos as Irvin
John Carpenter as the recording studio owner
Taylour Paige as Dussie Mae
Jonny Coyne as Sylvster
Michael Potts as Slow Drag
Maxayn Lewis dubbing all but final vocal
Cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler
Film Editing by Andrew Mondshein
Production Design by Mark Ricker
Set Decoration by Karen O'Hara and Diana Stoughton
Costume Design by Ann Roth
Music Arrangements by Branford Marsalis
Dances by Camille Brown
Running Time: 1 hour and 34 minutes
Reviewed by Elyse Somer