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'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Reminds Us We've Lost Tremendous Talent That Was Only Beginning
December 21, 2020  | By Mike Hughes
 


A musicality ripples through the movie Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Some of that, you would expect. The film (which recently debuted on Netflix) is about a blues recording session in 1920s Chicago; it has snatches of great music throughout.

But that's just part of it. The dialog itself often has the rhythm and flow of a jazzy riff. It offers a rich sampling of two immensely talented men who died way too soon.

One is Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer in August, at 43. The other is playwright August Wilson, who died of liver cancer in 2005, at 60.

Boseman is brilliant here, in a role that could easily earn him an Academy Award. (And I do mean "earn." No sympathy vote here; it's a stunning performance.)

Viola Davis is also perfect, in the smaller role of Ma Rainey, a real-life blues star. Both benefit from the dialog's great musicality.

Wilson was an amazing writer. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for drama (Fences, The Piano Lesson), which tied him for fourth overall, and was nominated six times – No. 1 overall.

His shows often simmer with pain, passion, warmth, and rage. And that usually peaks when the monologs have that musical flow.

We hear that from Glynn Turman, 73, playing an old pianist, reflecting on the notion of being a fool. And we often hear from Boseman as Levee, the young trumpeter.

Many viewers know Boseman for playing strong-and-silent heroes, both real (Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall) and fictional (Black Panther). But he also surprised them by going the opposite way, playing a high-voltage James Brown; with Ma Rainey, he did it again.

Levee is clearly a great talent, something he's keenly aware of. He's a gifted trumpeter and a composer, eager to assemble his own band, with a jazzy swing feel.

But he has a deep well of personal pain, plus two immediate obstacles. First of all, he's playing with a band that sticks to the traditional blues rhythms. And secondly, the dictates come, for now, from two forces – Ma Rainey and the record-label owner, a White man harvesting Black talent.

George C. Wolfe, a Broadway mainstay (24 Tony nominations, five wins), directed, getting strong work. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, better known as an actor, wrote the screenplay, opening this up a tad.

Mostly, though, this remains a play on film with long stretches of blistering dialog. Some viewers will have trouble keeping up with its whip-like speed. They may also feel battered by the two closing touches: One is fierce and unexpected; the next is quietly and sadly typical of the era.

Ma Rainey isn't always meant to be enjoyed. But it lets us savor two great and departed talents, one bringing the other's great words to life.

 
 
 
 
 
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