Director: George C Wolfe
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos
Watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom online in the UK: Netflix UK
“They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.” That’s Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It’s a powerhouse speech in a film full of powerhouse speeches, delivered by an ensemble at the top of its game.
Adapted from the play by August Wilson, the movie takes us back to sweltering summer of 1927, where Ma Rainey and her backing band are preparing to record an album – well, as soon as she gets a Coca-Cola to drink. Davis sweeps into frame with the commanding authority of a star who knows exactly how much she’s worth, and that demand for a cool beverage is just the first test of the record label’s priorities. It sets the tone for a deliciously spiky recording session, in which issues of respect and ownership provide a pertinent backing track.
Her bandmates only push tensions higher, with disagreements already springing up around the exact music they’re playing. While trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) are happy to play the tunes as they’ve got them, trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) has his own arrangement of the titular track that he knows will sell like hot cakes.
Levee’s the youngest of the bunch, and his confidence is a seamless harmony of youthful arrogance and artistic inspiration – and Chadwick Boseman plays those notes in a mesmerising performance that’s one of the best of his all-too-short career. Boseman blazes with certainty, not only about his musical gifts but also about his value – as a composer and as a human being. But while he and Ma are more similar in that regard than they’d like to admit, it also puts them at dramatic odds, as Levee is happy to take a more sycophantic approach to their white record label bosses. Between them, Jeremy Shamos’ squirming manager hasn’t the faintest clue how to resolve that conflict, not least because, as Ma suspects, he views them as products first and people second.
The rest of the cast are impeccable, from the always-excellent Domingo and the other weary veterans to Dusan Brown’s stuttering nephew of Ma, who’s been given a free gig as the song’s introducer. Taylour Paige’s backing dancer, Dussie, brings fire to the increasingly hot and steamy room, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s script deftly balances unspoken displays of frustration and ambition with Wilson’s witty dialogue. The actors’ miming of instruments is apparent from the off, but the group is nonetheless utterly convincing, with the band’s banter zinging back and forth with pitch-perfect precision.
At the helm, George C Wolfe (Angels in America) keeps things cinematic and stylish, ensuring the crackling pace pauses just enough to give space to the resounding speeches that erupt come the final movement. The result is a powerful study of creativity and commerce, one that’s intrinsically bound up with questions of racial exploitation, cultural appropriation and gate-keeping – and it’s sadly fitting that it should leave you wishing that you could hear more of Chadwick Boseman’s voice in the future. A timely chamber piece that resonates long after the end credits have rolled.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.
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