Netflix film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, which was released on Netflix on last Friday shortly after having a limited theatrical release in US several week ago, is a commendable adaptation of the acclaimed play of the same name by late August Wilson (1945-2005), who has been regarded as the “theater’s poet of black America”. Like “Fences” (2016), which is also based on one of Wilson’s notable plays, the movie presents a compelling drama of race and class, and, thanks to the engaging ensemble performance from its main cast members including the one who sadly passed away a few months ago, there are a number of superlative dramatic moments which will definitely linger on your mind for a while.
After the prologue scene in Georgia, the movie promptly moves onto its main background: a small recording studio located somewhere in the downtown area of Chicago on one day of 1927. During that period, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) was one of the most popular African American blues singers in US, and now she is about to record another performance of hers, but she is being late as usual, and this certainly frustrates not only her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) but also Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the owner of the recording studio.
Meanwhile, the four band members to accompany Rainey are also waiting for her arrival in the studio, but they are not particularly concerned because they know and understand well how brash and stubborn she is as your typical trailblazer. As Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and Toledo (Glynn Turman) talk with each other just for spending time before her arrival, we can clearly sense their longtime comradeship, and the actors playing them are flawless in their effortless interactions on the screen.
The last member of the band is Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman), a cocky young trumpeter who has been quite ambitious and hopeful about his music career. As reflected by the prologue scene, Levee is very eager for any opportunity to boost his career, and, to his older colleagues’ amusement, he is even willing to look a bit more humble and solicitous in front of Sturdyvant just because Sturdyvant may be interested in recording the latest works composed by him.
When he is subsequently ridiculed by his older colleagues for that, Levee comes to reveal what has been boiling and churning for many years behind his seemingly confident façade, and everyone listens to him with silence because, as fellow African Americans, they know too well how painful and infuriating life can be for African Americans. In his first showstopping moment in the film, Chadwick Boseman is utterly captivating in expressing his character’s old anger and resentment, and this is all the more poignant considering that he had only several months to live due to his terminal cancer during the shooting of the film.
After a little moment of respite and reflection provided by Toledo, Rainey finally arrives, but then she causes a series of problems right from the start. When she arrives in front of the studio along with her girlfriend and her young nephew who is supposed to participate in the recording, she happens to have a trouble with a police officer, and that is just the beginning of more headaches for her manager and Sturdyvant. Both of them are surely getting tired of Rainey more than ever, but they really need her new recording for their business, so they have no choice but to follow whatever Rainey demands.
While certainly knowing well how much her manager and Sturdyvant are frustrated and enraged, Rainey is not willing to step back at any chance because, as an African American woman, she is very determined to exert her power over these two Caucasian guys as much as she can. Viola Davis, who has been one of the most interesting actresses to us during last two decades, brings a considerable degree of intelligence as well as personality to her larger-than-life character, and her charismatic performance comes to hover over the story even during her absence.
Revee naturally envies that privileged status of Rainey, but it subsequently becomes quite evident to him and us that he does not have much chance from the beginning, and he ultimately becomes a tragic figure who lets himself ruined in a devastating way. While Boseman, who will inarguably garner a posthumous Oscar nomination for his performance in the movie, ably handles his several key moments during the second half of the film, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Poots are equally terrific in their respective supporting parts, and Jonny Coyne and Jeremy Shamos are also well-cast as two other crucial supporting characters at the fringe of the drama.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is directed by George C. Wolfe, a two-time Tony winner who has been mainly known for his stage works. Although the movie shows its theatrical aspects from time to time, it focuses on the strength of its main cast members’ performance thanks to Wolfe’s plain and unobtrusive storytelling approach, and the main cast members did a brilliant job of conveying to us the ideas and emotions inside Wilson’s play, which is adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson for the film. In short, this is a well-made film firmly supported by Boseman, Davis, and its other main cast members, and it is also touching to see how vigorously Boseman worked till the end of his short acting career. He was indeed a talented star actor, and it is a shame that he left us too early, but, at least, he gives us one last good performance to be admired and remembered.