Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★★

Watched on Netflix

As soon as Chadwick Boseman's trumpeter Levee enters the stage, he is sure of the spotlight. Although the blues singer Ma Rainey, embodied by Viola Davis, is the star of the show, Levee grabs the attention with his improvisations. He radiates an incredible energy and enthusiasm that has an infectious effect on the audience. In another world, this moment would have been another exciting springboard for Chadwick Boseman, who plays as unleashed as he ever has. But in this world, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is his last film.

In August, the US actor died of cancer. On screen he starred as baseball legend Jackie Robinson and funk pioneer James Brown. His greatest success was as Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom", Boseman proves he was nowhere near where he wanted to be. The ambitious Levee lines up as the most layered character in his oeuvre. It is a wrenching farewell performance in a film whose story itself could hardly be more tragic.

This story is based on the stage play of the same name by August Wilson, set in 1927 Chicago. The heat is in the streets. A brownish-golden veil covers the everyday hustle and bustle. But director George C. Wolfe doesn't want to spend too much time in the hustle and bustle. He is drawn to the rooms of a recording studio where the arrival of Ma Rainey is eagerly awaited. The recording of a new record promises good sales figures, but the artist does not show up. Tensions also begin to build in the rehearsal room, but for a completely different reason.

While the long-established band members Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) stick to the given notes, Levee tries to modernise the familiar songs with his own arrangements. With symbolic gesture, he walks into the studio at the beginning of the film with shiny new shoes, kicking up the dust that has settled over time. Levee is ready to change the world with his ideas. But he does not succeed in breaking out. The liberties he can take with the trumpet have nothing to do with reality.

George C. Wolfe works in his film - concentrated on a few characters and settings - with several strong images that mirror Levee's inner conflict on a visual level. Besides the trumpet and the shoes, which mark both ascent and decline, these images include a locked door. The young musician leans against it with all his might. He does everything he can to escape the stuffy air in the rehearsal room. In the end, another dead end is hidden behind the supposed gate to freedom. Heaven is visible, but unreachable.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" keeps moving towards the moment of change. The characters' actions, however, give little hope that the film will ever get there. An indescribable tragedy underlies the drama. Through the outstanding acting performances of the entire ensemble, it is nevertheless palpable. Most memorable is a look by Chadwick Boseman, who sums up the complex developments in the finale with astonishing precision. At that moment, it is not only the narrative that hurts, but also the knowledge of the loss of an incredible actor who has only just begun.

A One, a Two, now you know what to do!

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