The late Chadwick Boseman took on many Black men of honor, integrity and nobility in his too-brief career.
When the material allowed him some interpretive leeway, he infused those men — some real, like Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall, others mythic, such as T’Challa in “Black Panther” — with the stuff of life and of recognizable, off-the-pedestal humanity. And what he did to explore various sides of more troubling personalities, as he did in the eccentric, [undervalued James Brown biopic “Get On Up,”](
A fine actor always looks for the human under the archetype, complicating and challenging our feelings about characters and stories of who we are, where we’ve been, and why things haven’t changed enough.
To see Boseman, [who died of colorectal cancer in August at age 43,](
This is one hell of a farewell performance, full of wit and fire. It’s matched up and down by Viola Davis’s remarkable, note-perfect portrayal of the real-life blues legend Gertrude “Ma” Rainey.
The Netflix production premiering Dec. 18 is no biopic. Nor is it a reverential, solemn approach to Wilson’s breakthrough success, first staged on Broadway in 1984 with Charles S. Dutton as Levee and Theresa Merritt as Ma Rainey.
Director George C. Wolfe, a major theater artist in his first intersection with the late Wilson’s work, uses the adaptation by frequent Wilson collaborator Ruben Santiago-Hudson as a springboard. It’s rightly compressed, a swift 86 minutes long minus the end credits. Nearly half of Wilson’s rhapsodic monologues and banter among the session musicians has been cut or substantially condensed. It’s a play about waiting, in this case for the “Mother of the Blues” to arrive and record, for posterity and profit, in a 1927 Chicago recording studio. It’s also a story of an entire race waiting for their country to quit treating them like “history’s leftovers,” as one of Wilson’s musician characters says.
Wilson’s title always was a fooler. Rainey herself is a primary character, but in the play she doesn’t arrive with her latest lover, Dussie Mae, and her shy Georgia nephew, Sylvester, for a long time. The film version ushers in her at the start, with a rural Georgia prologue depicting one of Rainey’s tent shows in progress. The first close-ups of Davis — gold-capped teeth, dripping with sweat, mid-song, convincingly dubbed by Maxayn Lewis — recall images from director Wolfe’s vivid 1920s musical stage evocations, from “Jelly’s Last Jam” to “The Wild Party.”
In the Chicago recording studio, Rainey’s white manager placates the white studio owner, who’s upset at Rainey’s tardiness. Meantime Levee and his older, calmer fellow band members trade stories, smoke, drink, argue, and periodically recall some horrifying memories of bloodshed, lynching and escape down south. The conversation rolls like musicians “trading fours,” which is exactly what they’re doing, with or without music.
Levee sucks as much air out of the room as possible. Boseman’s physicality is fantastic: the way he struts around, his fedora angled back, his smiling way with a threat. He takes an instantaneous liking for Rainey’s new girlfriend; he has also been told by the studio owner that Levee’s own songs, very different from what he calls the “jugband” blues standards Rainey prefers, will find a home here in Chicago. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is about how all that falls together, and apart, over the course of a single day.
Wolfe’s version incuts between scenes, deftly, making something different out of the original play’s sequential, one-set progression. The Netflix production was rehearsed and filmed in Pittsburgh in 2019. By then, Boseman’s cancer had left him a gaunt and diminished figure. The astonishment of his work in “Ma Rainey” is how none of that matters. He acts like a man with nothing to lose; it’s fierce, casual-seeming, meticulous, intuitively right. His Levee is very different from Dutton’s original take: less of a sledgehammer swing, more of a darting, deceptively merry pot on a low simmer. He keeps Levee’s frustrated rage hidden until it bursts out with Wilson’s now-legendary monologue in which Levee rails at God, before turning his attention to his own precarious circumstances.
Davis, who won a Tony Award for Wilson’s “King Hedley II” and an Oscar for Denzel Washington’s film version of Wilson’s “Fences,” has no equal in this material, and just about any other material, for that matter. Her attack on Rainey proceeds stealthily, and Wolfe’s camera pushes in, quietly, to catch her talking about the meaning of the blues as if it’s an interior monologue, accidently overheard. It’s breathtaking.
Everyone’s good: Glynn Turman’s Toledo, Coleman Domingo’s Cutler, Michael Potts’ Slow Drag, the session musicians; Taylor Paige’s live-wire Dussie Mae; Jeremy Shamos and Johnny Coyne as the tetchy white overseers; and Dusan Brown as Sylvester, whose stutter (rather cruelly exploited by Wilson) draws the mockery of Levee and company. The sharpest visual grace notes say a lot, wordlessly, as when two characters duck into a Polish deli for a Coca-Cola for Ma Rainey, and the wall of scowling white faces turns them back around on a dime. Racism is everywhere, as is the exploitation of Black musical talent for white appropriation.
Director Wolfe has added an epilogue, spelling out that chain of exploitative musical commerce. The bitter jokiness of the coda may some rankle Wilson purists. Others may struggle with the relative plotlessness of the material. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” here scored wonderfully by Branford Marsalis, weaving Rainey’s own standards in and among original material, does not adapt easily to another medium. It’s a lot tougher to pace and finesse than the recent [and very good film version of “Fences\.”](
But Wolfe, Santiago-Hudson and the ensemble have compressed and edited and gotten the thing to move, on screen, and it fully energizes the experience. The central metaphor remains the crucial power source: In a play, now a movie, about waiting, the waiting isn’t just about musicians waiting for a diva to deliver. It’s about an entire race waiting for a nation to begin the hard work of liberty and justice for all. Seeing this “Ma Rainey” a second time, some of the changes and cuts I didn’t love mattered hardly at all. Seeing these actors, the late Boseman chief among them, relish the opportunity to try to get a daunting stage-to-screen adaptation right: That’s a privilege to behold.
‘MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM’
MPAA rating: R (for language, some sexual content and brief violence)
Running time: 1:33
Premieres: Dec. 18 on Netflix.
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