“A-one, a-two, a-you know what to do” chants Cutler (Colman Domingo), the bandleader and horn player for Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) aka “The Mother of the Blues,” as the four-piece band rips into another rousing rendition of the song that gives the film its title.
Based on the play by Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson and adapted for the screen by George C. Wolfe, the vivid “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” swelters from the blazing performances by Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The period piece is heightened by the costumes created by Oscar-winner Ann Roth (“The English Patient”) and Tobias Schliessler’s gorgeous cinematography.
The movie is set during the summer of 1927 in Chicago where eight years earlier, a black teenager was drowned in a hate crime that led to no arrests. The incident left 37 dead and hundreds injured after black protesters clashed with a white mob. The tensions caused not only by that horrific event but also the time period are evident in Ma Rainey’s contumacious attitude toward her white agent Irvin (a very good Jeremy Shamos) and employer Mel Sturdyvant (Jonathan Coyne), the recording studio owner who has paid her to travel from the rural south to the urban north for a one-day session.
The best way to describe the performance by Davis is sumptuous, a lavish feast for the eyes. Her ruby red cheeks, black eye shadow, fiery lips, gold-capped teeth, and layer of sweat are full-on gangster as the larger-than-life performer is ready to hail fire and brimstone on anyone who tries to take advantage of Ma Rainey, including her cornet player Levee, played by Boseman, who leaves us with a final performance that will knock you off your feet.
Musical tastes were changing in the late ’20s, and Ma’s jug band-style of blues was becoming obsolete. Duke Ellington’s modern jazz was taking the country by storm. Levee knew it, and he was ready to embrace the future. “I knows how to play real music, not this jug band s--t,” he informs the band after coming up with a new arrangement for Ma’s song. Even Irvin is behind Levee’s new intro, but Ma sees otherwise. “You call that playing music?”
Boseman radiates energy as the young ambitious musician. He’s got a new pair of shiny shoes unlike those “clodhoppers” worn by piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman), plus Sturdyvant has promised to record his songs. “I’m gonna get me a band and make me some records!” All of that enthusiasm comes to a screeching halt as Boseman delivers a monologue filled with anger and sorrow as he recounts a traumatic childhood event involving his mother that changed his life. It’s a defining moment for Levee who changes the disposition of his band mates. It’s also another example of Boseman’s brilliant ability to move the viewer with a transformative performance.
Davis gets less screen time than her colleagues as the band prepares for her arrival by rehearsing, but when the Oscar-, Emmy-, and Tony-winning actress arrives, she takes command of the screen. Ma Rainey is the only character in Wilson’s work who is based on an actual historical figure, and she’s the only LGBTQ figure in a series of 10 plays, Wilson wrote to chronicle the African-American experience during the 20th century. Dubbed “The Pittsburgh Cycle” by the playwright, “Black Bottom” was also the only play of the series to be set in Chicago.
Produced by Oscar-winner Denzel Washington and featuring new music by Branford Marsalis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is so engaging, that when the end credits roll after 94 minutes it feels like you’ve been short-changed. You don’t want the film to end.