REVIEW: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a beautiful tribute to Chadwick Boseman’s eternal legacy
I didn’t know much about this one going in beside the talent and who Ma Rainey is. I don’t know her music well past hearing her any time I’m listening to the blues. Still, coming off of a Fences rewatch, I couldn’t help but get excited to see Viola Davis bring it again in what I ignorantly didn’t realize was an August Wilson classic. This detail should have been obvious from the dialogue alone. It also explains why it resonated so deeply as it did.
My August Wilson literacy is obviously not top-notch. I know Fences and a few excerpts, but was excited to hear that Denzel was producing several more after Fences, a movie I believe still hasn’t seen its most significant moment on a cultural level. Play scripts do something that film scripts often fail to do, and there’s an art to doing so that I’ll go into later.
Of course, seeing Chadwick Boseman in a role he’ll never get the chance to follow up also made me dread how I would take it. However, once the movie started, I was in absolute awe over what I saw on the screen. It wasn’t the story of Ma Rainey with Chadwick Boseman to the side, nor was Davis the star of the film. This was Boseman’s movie. The fact that a dying man brought so much life to a magical performance tells us that Boseman wasn’t going to let his displacement prevent him from telling us one last story before he went.
It sometimes seems crass to define an actor’s posthumous releases by the impact of their death. More than a decade after Heath Ledger’s death, his work in The Dark Knight remains synonymous with his death despite being mostly unrelated to his tragic ending.
There’s something different here. Boseman didn’t pass away in a way that was news to even him. While he didn’t tell fans and make each film another possible encore before his death, his mortality had to be on his mind while playing a role with this much conviction. Whether he knew that death was near or still clung to hope that his cancer would go away for good, this was a performance by a man who wanted to spend his final days being known as a man on the edge of the mortal coil. This was the final work of a person who wasn’t about to let death come without leaving a mark that will far outlive his time on earth, and it shows with every emotional, hilarious, depressing, and inspiring scene. It’s hard not to see the beauty and heartbreak in this with equal admiration.
Boseman’s ability to transition from a happy and excitable Levee to an angry, broken man whose life of trauma eats away at his soul with every new challenge is stunning. There are several emotional monologues from one of the greatest playwrights of all-time that would have been his most memorable acting moment on their own. Whether telling the story of his family trauma at the hands of white America or defying God in front of the band, Boseman gives a performance that would have elevated him to another level whether he was still with us or not.
While Viola Davis’s Ma is clearly the driving force behind the film, Viola has no problem sacrificing screen time for a scenery-chewing role that is sure to be among her best for years to come. While the film’s men are held back by the world in ways that make them feel increasingly hopeless, Ma is willing to take it on in full stride. She’s the perfect opposite of everyone behind her despite experiencing many of the same pitfalls.
Every band mate helps complete the story’s mission. Besides Levee, there’s Toledo, the straight-laced, good-natured pianist with his mind on the future of black people in America. Glynn Russell Turman plays this role with such a subtlety that I’d love to see him join Boseman and Davis in their inevitable onslaught of award nominations. The rest of the band, from Colman Domingo’s religious pianist Cutler to Michael Potts’ bassist Slow Drag, have a story to tell that got them where they were, with each getting a unique time to shine.
The rest of the supporting cast balances out these roles. Taylour Paige plays Dussie Mae, a singer who happens to be in love with both Ma and Levee. Her role is mostly pushed to the script’s side, but her ability to show so much character with a quieter part than most of the cast adds a fascinating dynamic to the story. Dusan Brown’s Sylvester, an anxious, stuttering nephew of Ma’s whose inability to say a single sentence without stuttering, is the narrative backbone of the film. Everyone in the cast brings their own subtlety, range, and gravitas needed from such a masterful script, which Ruben Santiago did a fantastic job adapting to the screen.
Jazz artist Brandon Marsalis also does a beautiful job of setting the tone with the jazzy score that one would expect from his involvement. An unsung hero of the film, Maxayn Lewis, does a fabulous job emulating Rainey as the singing voice during the performing scenes. Viola Davis’s ability to match her without any noticeable lip-syncing is yet another layer to her performance. All of this works together, however, thanks to the director.
George C. Wolfe shows why it’s important to consider who the director is when making a musical film. While not always perfect, theater directors and actors with stage experience always seem to know how to bring the minimalist nature of the stage on screen. There’s rarely a need for gigantic set pieces. Many of my favorites tend to blend the film stage’s limitless possibilities with the intimate feel of the playhouse.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a testament to Boseman, Davis, Wilson, and every other cast member and person behind the scenes. Everyone involved deserves applause for such an awe-inspiring film. Not only is it going to bring August Wilson to an ignorant audience like yours truly, but the way it portrays the black experience in the lead up to the Great Depression puts a mirror to us 94 years into the future. Themes of double consciousness and the burden of oppression help put another face on things that I know about but cannot always picture. Films like this show why it’s important to get pieces of art from the stage to a wider audience than those who can’t afford to see them on the stage. With the right people with the right love for the material, themes, and historical value behind it, the message behind it can now be heard by its biggest audience ever. That is beautiful.