Who was Ma Rainey? Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was a blues singers and one of the first generation of blues singers to record. Known simply as The “Mother of the Blues”, she was a force to be reckoned with. A gut-bucket, gender bending, Coca-Cola swizzling, no-holds barred blues singer, who was even a more brutal business woman and stood her ground often painfully aware that the white recording executives will make more money off of her talent than she ever will during her lifetime. When the late August Wilson, brought a chapter of her story to life in his award-winning play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the American theatre was never the same. Now, award-winning Director/Producer George c. Wolfe joined forces with Academy Award/Tony winners Viola Davis and Producer Denzel Washington to bring this woman and her brazen tale to Netflix.
It’s late 1920’s Chicago. What begins as preparation for a routine recording session, becomes a life lesson and eye-opening experience for all of those involved. With a cast chock full of Wilsonian’s, Viola Davis (Ma Rainey) leads a cast that including Michael Potts (Slow Drag), Colman Domingo (Cutler), Glynn Turman (Toledo), Taylor Paige (Dussie Mae), Dusan Brown (Sylvester), Jeremy Shamos (Irvin), Jonny Coyne (Sturdyvant) and Chadwick Boseman as Levee.
The opening number is full of glitzy, shapely chorus girls flanking Ma as she belts out her set greasepaint, gold teeth and all. Inhabited by Viola Davis (who is a three- time Tony nominee for August Wilson plays and taking home the statue for Fences and King Headley ), you know she has a command of the language that would be lost on most. Wilson was notorious for having male heavy casts, so if you were the lone female of the crew your skills needed to be strong and stellar. It’s also interesting to note that almost always, women casts in this title role arehardly ever are spectacular vocalists but possess a gravitas and presence that is unparalleled. Davis puts her own unique stamp on the role cinematically reminding you what a force of nature this legendary recording artist brought to her life, her work and her business. Her unparalleled work is share with a cast full of Oscar worthy performances, however, it is the late Chadwick Boseman who delivers the performance of a lifetime.
Having lost his battle to colon cancer earlier this year, every film and every performance up to this point prepared Boseman to inhabit Levee. Levee’s lack of faith in God monologue brought on by a tragic event as a young man will break your heart keeping you captivated with every single syllable. Growing weary of having his ’20 Feet From Stardom’ moment behind the blues empress, the young composer/musician desires to head his own band. As the member of the band who takes exceptional pride in his appearance, is popular with the ladies and has no qualms over not being a team player, it is that very same prowess and pride that cause him to snap by the end. My man loses his gig, his girl and his self-respect in just a few short hours and the consequences of that massive loss prove to be deadly. Watching Boseman likens to a tornado touching down destroying everything in its path, yet recognizing the beauty of nature simultaneously. Boseman gives Levee depth, breadth, substance, complexity and charm that only he could inhabit with that broad smile and infectious energy.
All the performances are enhanced and punched up a notch with a cracker-jack adapted screenplay crafted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who has directed numerous versions of Ma Rainey for the stage and previously brought us Lackawana Blues) reminds us that Black people as far back as the 20’s were shrewd entrepreneurs, as well as, enormously gifted musicians. Speaking of musicians, if you were wondering if the band played their own instruments then ponder no longer. They all most certainly did and took much pride in outdoing each other for each and every scene.
George C. Wolfe captures Wilson’s legacy on celluloid for an eternity with the recognition and dignity it deserves. Produced by Viola Davis, Denzel Washington and Netflix films, Ma Rainey’s Bottom shimmys onto screens December 18th just in time for the holiday viewing.