By John H. Foote
(****) In theatres Nov. 25, Streaming in December on Netflix
What a year Netflix is having!
Da Five Bloods, Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7, now this, and still to come George Clooney’s science fiction epic The Midnight Sky, which is said to be nothing short of astonishing. The streaming service turned studio is well within reach of an 83-year old record of a single studio having five films in the race for Best Picture. The last time it took place was in 1937 when they still nominated 10 films for Best Film, a practice stopped in the late forties, and reinstated (well, up to 10 films) for the 2009 season. They have become the success DreamWorks did not; despite Oscar wins for Best Picture, they just could not continue that pace.
Adapted for the screen from the August Wilson play, produced by Denzel Washington and directed by Tony Award winning director George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes to the screen bursting with energy, rage, indignation, humour and a pristine understanding of the state of art in America. More specifically the state of the African American artist in a world dominated and essentially run by the white men.
The film is nothing short of magnificent.
The narrative explores what it was, still is, to be an African American artist in a world controlled by the white man. Your job is to create music perceived by the whites to be what black audiences and white will purchase, that they will follow. The conflict for the black artists is to maintain their artistry (and dignity) without ruining their career by offending the whites. The problem here is that far too often the black musicians fight the wrong enemy, turning their arsenal on each other within the very crowded confines of the studio where they have gathered in 1927, the south side of Chicago to make a record. There of course the band waits for Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) to make her grand entrance, the great lady late as usual. Getting there early with brand new shoes and brand-new tunes to record is Levee (Chadwick Boseman) a cocky, pushy, ambitious young trumpet player. Levee wants a break from the jazz they normally play but Ma does not want to rattle the cage and thinks they should follow on with what has been working. Levee believes jazz is changing, becoming faster and bouncier and wants to go in that direction. So with her not there on time, he works some devious magic. Ma had forged her career in tents, swaying and swinging to her songs, using her body to great advantage, giving the songs a powerful sexual feel. Teasing the audience with her body and that gleam in her eye, she is absolutely aware she is the star of the band, and carries that around with her, a giant chip on her shoulder daring anyone to knock it off. She knows exactly how to charge up her music, to give it that extra boost to hit the right tone with audiences, and visual presentation is so much a part of her appeal. Her dark beautiful skin shimmers with light sweat in the heat, and nothing she does is by accident. Ma has learned to play the game with the whites in the music business, knowing they outnumber her, knowing without the whites the blacks do not get recorded, she plays their game, slightly mocking them when she can, holding up a session for that ice cold Coca Cola she was promised.
Never before has Viola Davis so exploded across the screen like a blazing light, dominating the film with her very presence. In every way she is magnificent doing the finest work of her career, and let’s not forget how great she has been in the past! She was Oscar nominated for both Doubt (2008) and The Help (2011) and won an Oscar for Fences (2016), a play to film by Denzel Washington also by August Wilson. Here she’s Oscar bound as Ma, simply extraordinary in every frame of the film. Dominating every scene she’s in.
A diva who knows it, and more so knows when to play the diva card, she has been around the music business long enough to know inherently how to play the game.
Levee has not. He believes if he bullies, pushes and ambushes his way into the spotlight he will be as big as Ma, known as the Mother of Jazz. Shamelessly self-serving, his ego matches hers, meaning they are on a collision course from the very start. And it is not enough that Levee will clash with Ma over music, he has eyes for her girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), though no female escapes his glance.
In many ways Ma and Levee are very much alike, except she has learned to play the games he refuses to play.
This is the last performance of Chadwick Boseman, who died far before his time, tragically, last summer. We have never seen anything he has done before like this; he is all but burning a hole in the screen with his scorching white hot performance. This is one of those performances in which the actor leaves behind any trace of himself and inhabits the character in every possible way. Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980), Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice (1982), Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992), or Natalie Portman in Jackie (2019) gave the same kind of pure, complete inhabitation of a character as Boseman does with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Through the course of his career he proved time and time again he was a gifted actor, and then a superstar with Black Panther (2018). He will easily be nominated for Best Actor for this performance and might get a second for his haunted and haunting soldier in Da Five Bloods. His final scene with Delroy Lindo, the infamous ghost scene, broke my heart, and does each time I watch the film. Perhaps it is the fact Boseman is gone from us, or perhaps he was really that great an actor. I think he was special, a black Brando on the rise, whose artistry was as pure as the great man who portrayed so many characters through his career. By comparing Boseman to Brando I do so with the highest compliment in mind. I find it beautiful that Boseman’s educational benefactor, Denzel Washington, produced this film after paying for the younger actor’s studies in acting.
The first time we see Levee in the film he bursts into the studio like the cock of the walk, jaw jutting out, leading his walk, dressed in a suit that fits him like a scarecrow, lean and lither, a lovely energetic dancer. Like a great boxer he spars with his opponents, verbally, sizing them up before launching his assault on them, often knowing them better than they know him. Driven by his fury over being a black artist, and he knows he is an artist, in a business handled by white men, he has not yet, nor never will learn how to play the game Ma does. Deep in his core, he asks can a black artist expect any sort of moral justice from a white man’s God? Is this possible? Should he pray to God or rage and curse at him? Should he got to war with anyone who disagrees with him, or know when to walk away?
As electrifying as Boseman is in the role of Levee, as searing and powerful as he is commanding the screen, he is a contradictive man, unsure of so much in his life. So much anger but he turns his rage on the wrong people!
Chadwick Boseman will be forever remembered for his work in 2020, for this final performance as he will be forever Black Panther. His work is forever immortal, as is this exceptional young actor, though gone, never to be forgotten by virtue of his work on screen.
Davis captures the essence of Ma with absolute perfection, she has simply never commanded the screen with such power and grace before. It is a big, grand performance yet subtle when it needs to be. As I mentioned, before she understands when to flex her muscles and when to play the game. But watch her give in to the studio producer, that defiant look in her eye and that mocking look she delivers them. And she is superior because they do not even know they are being insulted as she is subservient to them. Both she and Levee are musical visionaries, no question, and she sees this in the younger man, realizing he is both like her as well as being her nemesis. He too will have to be managed, but carefully, not as she handles everyone else. Ma realizes what Levee has not yet learned, that to succeed in this white man’s world, a part of her soul must be given away if she wishes to continue making music. She has done her best through her life not to give too much of herself away and has kept enough to remind everyone she is the star, no one else, Ma is it.
Wolfe does a tremendous job maintaining the claustrophobic sense of the small studio and how it adds to the tension building throughout the film. There is nowhere to hide for any of the musicians, and sadly, they know it. The production design, costumes, cinematography, sound and film editing are superb, all beautifully complimenting every aspect of the film.
The director’s greatest strength is his awareness that his two leads are giving astounding performances that need to be nurtured, noticed, and appreciated. Wolfe makes sure of that in creating this remarkable film, which is simply one of the finest of the year and will be remembered at the end of the decade. Stunning in every way.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.