Our film critic Harlan Jacobson got the Blues this Christmas by dropping in on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the new film based on an August Wilson play from 1984.
The film is produced by Netflix, which is in the holiday audience and Oscar hunt.
HJ: Just the sound of the title, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, as it rolls off the tongue, promises some kind of lusty commitment to a life of defiance, like we’re in for a wild ride in a convertible careening out of control.
But it’s the Blues ,we’re singing here. That’s what you get from Ma Rainey, born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886, otherwise called the Mother of the Blues, and the heart of the discussion that goes on in the second installment of playwright August Wilson’s American Century Cycle decalogue. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was written in 1984, preceding by a year his Fences, filmed in 2016 by Denzel Washington for producer Scott Rudin. Denzel has now produced Ma Rainey, and along with some quality co-producers hired George C. Wolfe to direct. Which is to say make a play work on film, no easy task. Wolfe won Tony awards for Angels in America a quarter century ago for Joe Papp at the Public and wrote and directed Jelly’s Last Jam at the Mark Taper Forum in LA. What works best on film here is less the film than the force of Wilson’s construct.
In this screen version, it’s 1927 and Ma Rainey has come from Barnesville, GA and her tent show down South, which opens the film, to follow the black migration up to the south side of Chicago, to cut a record for the white producers at Hot Rhythm Studios. Viola Davis, who ate Denzel’s lunch in Fences, swallows the whole platter as Ma Rainey. She knows she’s playing the white man’s game, she’s a natural at exercising leverage and brinkmanship to get what she wants when she wants it from her white producers. The band? They’re along for the ride.
But there’s the little matter of an artistic insurrection in her band. The young cornet player, Levee, has rearranged her Black Bottom song and given it some jump. It’s 1927, this is the city, money, booze, hemlines and hair bobs, speakeasies in Harlem. Chadwick Boseman, in his last screen role, makes Levee sharp and fast and hot to toot in fancy boots. He’s got places to go.
Cutler on the trombone (Colman Domingo) doesn’t want to poke the bear. Play it the way Ma has sung it for 25 years, Levee. Bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano are down with that.
Black bottom sounds like it should be rollicking fun. It’s not. It’s serious fun. It’s not a celebration of music—far from it--but an in-house argument wrapped inside a blues song being pulled in two directions: country vs city, blues vs jazz, a Southern vs Northern fight in a population that has picked up and moved, and a fight between old artists who are shocked at just how much pain the young artist reveals that they have forgotten or tamped down. Ultimately, Ma Rainey is about stasis or growth. And Ma knows where she stands. Or sits.
A good part of the pleasure in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is being a fly on the wall on the set listening to the riffing—not in the music—but the men giving each other the business when they think they’re alone, or Ma Rainey routing all of them and the white producers, too. We’re not talking great cinematography here, and by necessity there’s a lot of period design in a year when period style has gone from passive aggressive to in your face at every turn. Branford Marsalis scored the film.
Boseman, seen last summer as the enigmatic officer who got left behind in Vietnam in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, died in August from a years-long battle with cancer. He is lean and hungry here, as Levee should be. But it’s all the more discomfiting that we look at him now and know why he’s not Jackie Robinson of 42, or James Brown in Get On Up, Thurgood Marshall, or T’Challa of Black Panther in the Avengers series. He was fighting on an all too real battlefield off the set but ties down 2nd base here like the young pro he was.
What’s thrilling about Wilson is his rage, quiet and controlled most of the time, but fundamentally deep, and explosive in soliloquy. Then there’s that Wilsonian sense of ironic fatalism: You can just see Denzel as Troy Maxson, whose career in the big leagues was stolen from him in Fences, shake his head here when the white guys snatch Levee’s hip songs and sing ‘em like white people.