There are certain years where you just get a movie that wows you with the power of its ensemble. Last year, we had PARASITE and this year, we have MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM.
This isn’t to say that MA RAINEY is as good as PARASITE (frankly, that is a pretty tall order for a lot of films to match), but at its core, MA RAINEY is held up immensely by solid direction, a fantastic cast, and a script by Rueben Santiago Hudson that he adapted from the play by the late, great August Wilson.
MA RAINEY wasn’t the first play that August Wilson wrote but it was the first of his works to be produced on Broadway and it garnered him instant acclaim. It stands out as different from the other 9 plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle (now more commonly referred to as The Century Cycle) as being the only one not set in Pittsburgh. It is, instead, set in a rather run-down recording studio in Chicago.
The plot revolves around the real-life legendary “mother of the blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) coming to 1927 Chicago to record an album with her band: trumpeter Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), guitarist/trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo), and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts).
Most of the action takes place in the rather tiny and dingy rehearsal space of the recording studio and primarily focuses on that of these band members. Toledo, Cutler, and Slow Drag aren’t exactly fond of the cocky exuberance of the younger Levee, who is one of those types that is always looking to the future and the next stepping stone rather than truly focusing on the here and now.
Once Ma Rainey arrives to the session (after a fender bender in her car right outside the studio), it is apparent immediately that this woman is a Diva with a capital D. She is also a woman that is completely sure of herself…and not afraid to BE who she is, particularly when she parades herself holding her younger female lover on her arm while en route to the studio.
Ma Rainey puts up with nothing short of instant perfection and with personalities clashing and the heat at unbearable peaks, tension is nothing less than palpable among this group.
In terms of the story content, I would say that the piece is compact and potent. It runs just over an hour and a half long and the run-time still flies by to the point where when it ended, I was surprised…and this is coming from someone who has seen and read the play multiple times.
A lot of that credit can also go to director George C. Wolfe, who isn’t exactly known to mainstream audiences but he is simply a LEGEND in the theatre world for directing such productions as the original incarnations of ANGELS IN AMERICA, TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, CAROLINE OR CHANGE, along with the famed Delacorte Theatre production of MOTHER COURAGE & HER CHILDREN starring Meryl Streep and being the Artistic Director of The Public Theatre from 1993-2004.
Some have criticized Wolfe’s direction as being bland and too staged. I actually feel he did very well with this material in making it seem lively and vibrant when it truly could’ve been mundane. I would even go as far to say he would be more worthy of an Oscar nomination for Directing than many contenders they’ve given the freaking award to over the years. Simply put…he did a good job. If you want to see a horrid example of a famed theatre director trying his hand at film and failing, I suggest you look up Hal Prince’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and prepare to cry.
The script was adapted by Rueben Santiago-Hudson, who is primarily known as an actor and a director with a history of working on the works of August Wilson (SEVEN GUITARS, THE PIANO LESSON). He does right by Wilson and maintains a lot of his fiery dialogue but also helps move the action along to multiple spaces as opposed to keeping it all confined in just the rehearsal room space. I do hope he will be able to receive an Adapted Screenplay nomination.
Now that bring me to the performances:
The smaller supporting performances by Taylour Paige, Dusan Brown, Jonny Coyne, and Jeremy Shamos are solid and each have wonderful moments and add something to the material.
Then you have the main core group:
My god, this is quite the cast. With all of the talk of how THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO SEVEN was going to have the killer ensemble of the year, it ended up not holding a candle to MA RAINEY.
Domingo, Potts, and Turman are remarkable and that isn’t a surprise. While none of them are exactly household names (though most people would instantly recognize Turman thanks to his work on such shows as A DIFFERENT WORLD and THE WIRE), they have always been truly stellar performers. The roles of Cutler, Slow Drag, and Toledo are good roles but they are also the kind of roles that could disappear into the background if not dealt with in a proper manner. Thankfully this trio, under the direction of Wolfe, helped bolster this movie to a higher level.
Then comes Viola Davis.
It goes without saying that Viola Davis is easily one of the greatest acting talents working today, female or male. Despite not doing her own singing, she owns the role and commands the screen whenever she appears. Ma Rainey is an interesting role because while it is a leading role, it is somewhat truncated and that is why I think this film, just as with the play, can be truly considered an ensemble piece. As of this writing, I can’t exactly say if I would support Davis winning an Oscar for this. I haven’t seen enough of the contenders yet but I do feel quite comfortable in saying that she deserves a nomination quite easily.
Back in 2008, Heath Ledger gained Oscar buzz for THE DARK KNIGHT right after he passed away. Some at the time speculated that Ledger might not have won had he still been alive since the Academy had never honored any performances from a superhero movie. However, he was fantastic and deserving and he won.
People are already saying online that Boseman could win the Oscar thanks to a combo of a great performance and the fact that he is sadly no longer with us. The truth is…that narrative could work. However, here is another truth:
HE IS TRULY GREAT IN THIS FILM.
I have seen MA RAINEY done as a play 3 times, including one with Charles S. Dutton playing the Levee role, and I had not seen an actor bring the immense charisma and passion and electric energy to Levee that Boseman did. While I still have to see Anthony Hopkins in THE FATHER (the other huge performance that is getting passionate raves) and I still think Riz Ahmed’s work in SOUND OF METAL is a true subtle marvel, I do think that Boseman would be a very deserving winner for this performance. It would also only make him the third African-American male to win a Lead Actor Oscar after Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington. What a truly stellar way to bid the world farewell.
If you are unfamiliar with the material, I think it benefits knowing less about the characters beats in the story. It might seem a little bombastic and theatrical at times (despite what I said about Wolfe being able to expand upon that), but I do think the emotion and passion given by these actors are enough to carry the day.
RATING (out of 5 stars):