Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★★

Few things about Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, no particular order (and trying to avoid spoilers)

1. I actually came across the play back in the 90s, totally at random. I'd picked up a paperback collection of FAMOUS AMERICAN PLAYS OF THE 1980s (Amazon tells me it was this - had my first exposure to Sam Shepard's FOOL FOR LOVE, which ended up being turned into a pretty good movie by Robert Altman, but I digress) - I read it, was struck by it, and forgot about it for a little while, until I came across more of August Wilson's work - when I heard the play was being made into a movie with Chadwick Boseman (playing Levee, a role originally filled by Charles S Dutton, I believe) and Viola Davis, I was pretty excited by it - and then, when it turned out that this was going to be Boseman's last, posthumous role....well, there's a tendency to want to overhype an artist's final work maybe, as part of saying goodbye to them, but this isn't that (and it's very much an ensemble piece, anyhow) - what this is is just a really good movie.

2. The script is a modified version of the play, but keeps the central arc of Levee's character intact. It at first feels like a historical snapshot, a showbiz drama, if you will, educating audiences about the origins of the Blues and a figure who was enormously popular in her day (Ma Rainey) but had somewhat fallen into obscurity by the time the play came out--but it branches out in several directions through the characters, dealing with the music industry, especially as it related to African-Americans, with the characters of Ma and Levee - Ma at the peak, seeing the inevitable downward slope coming up and fighting to keep what she has, take advantage of it in ways large and small, Levee at the bottom, full of ideas and innovations, but unable to get a foot in the door, especially not if he isn't willing to be taken advantage of - there's an irony in the recording session that makes up the bulk of the film's runtime that the viewer gets a sense the two could really be friends and compatriots in a different life, but here, trying to secure their own futures, they're essentially smiling rivals trying to succeed while negotiating the rules laid out for them by the white bosses of Paramount records.

3. The screenplay is a little stage-y (I don't think it quite transcends its origins as a play that's mostly set in a single studio) but director George Wolfe really manages to overcome that by the end - there are some framing devices, particularly at the opening with a concert sequence set in a big tent, some newsreels, and some shots of African-American families in Chicago after the great migration - the new Black urban working class. They're not just attempts to make the play more cinematic though-- the concert sequence works as an establishment of character, showing Ma in front of an audience in the South and contrasting her holding court, with her band and her dancers, and her music, to the negotiations in a cramped and unforgiving recording studio in front of people who really don't care about the music. Wolfe's camera glides around and he's particularly deft at moving from the musicians creating the music to the producers in the booth and the tools being used to record it--a constant visual contrast between the joy of creation and expression at the root of the blues, and the inevitable forces bottling and selling it to take advantage (there's a cut near the end that's REALLY effective - I wasn't quite sure if it's meant to be quietly tragic or a really good ironic joke--probably a bit of both) - Wolfe also suffuses everything with an orange-yellow glow, making it feel overheated, making the cramped band rehearsal area feel a bit like a refuge, and again, giving a constant sense of the character's frustration. And there's a bit with Chadwick Boseman and a door, not in the original play, that's powerful in its own right.

4. The Blues. Branford Marsalis handled the music on this and it's a joy throughout.

5. The cast is solid. Viola Davis is a force of nature, and when the filmmakers show old black and white photographs of a smiling Ma Rainey at the end of the film, it feels remarkably like the same energy. I enjoyed Colman Domingo a lot as well.............but this is the Chadwick Boseman show, in some regards, and this is a high, pained trumpet note he's exited on. When he first appears on screen here, he looks noticeably frail, but that frailty works for the character, a dreamer who's vulnerable despite himself, bursting with energy and ideas and hopes for a future in a world that's already scarred and wounded him terribly, with what it did to his parents -- in some ways, Boseman's character here is an opposing force, a mirror image of his presence in DA 5 BLOODS, and where Delroy Lindo had the big showstopping monologue in that one, here Boseman gets to cut loose ----I'm not quite sure what it says about me that I'm a big fan of movies where characters stare at the ceiling and scream angrily at God, but I am, and add to that Boseman's own painful circumstance and the illness he was keeping a lid on during filming this, there are a couple of speeches (you'll know them when you see them) culminating with one where he's addressing God directly, that are remarkably, painfully raw, and even though I sort of knew they were coming, I had to take a short break from the film, because, damnit, I didn't want to see Boseman in pain. It's a remarkable performance, is what I'm trying to say, and it shines just as much as Davis's mouth full of gold teeth, here.

6. In some ways, this film is a terrific advertisement for a cold coca-cola.

7. No DVD/DVD extras in the streaming era, but Netflix did have a little behind the scenes documentary available after viewing the film - a 30 minute assemblage, it featured a few spoilers in its own right, but was mostly a collection of the principals (including August Wilson's widow and producer Denzel Washington) talking about the story and its importance, grouped into sections - the history of Ma Rainey, director Wolfe's approach to the material, a brief primer on the blues, August Wilson's work, Viola Davis's creation of Ma, Chadwick Boseman, etc. It's informative and does a great job of highlighting and bringing out the many threads of the story and the themes that may be buried under the hook of 'a story about blues musicians making a record' so I'll mostly avoid talking about it and leave it for those interested to watch on their own ---but one little story, by Branford Marsalis, when talking about Chadwick Boseman.

He mentions how, at the beginning of the shoot (intercut with footage of Marsalis conducting while wearing a mask - take that, Tom Cruise!) Boseman came up to him and wanted to know if he could get a trumpet fingering chart from him - in other words, to know which trumpet keys were which, and how to play it. Marsalis notes that he could, and did, but it was a lot of work --Boseman essentially teaching himself how to play trumpet so that it looked like he knew what he was doing for the part. The kicker IS, as Marsalis notes with a little grin, it wasn't even necessary, as the producers were able to get the trumpet player from, I believe the Tonight Show to come in and work on close-ups/play in the 'band'. But Boseman still did it--and it was, as Marsalis notes, a lot of work, saying something like 'everyone's willing to get fit for those superhero films, but you don't see a lot of actors who are willing to learn how to play the trumpet for a movie.'

Boseman was, though.

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