Denzel Washington’s new co-production is special in more ways than one. The film tries understanding Black history in America using Blues music as an important prop. It talks of racism and discrimination focusing on the African-American identity, but the impact holds true in a universal manner. Importantly, the film marks the final appearance of Chadwick Boseman, who takes his final bow on a high amid a stellar cast in flawless form.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay is set in Chicago of the 1920s, and draws from the true story of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, a first generation professional African-American blues singers to record music. Ma Rainey, popularly known “Mother of the Blues” would influence generations of blues singers over the century that followed.
Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey in the George C. Wolfe directorial with an assuredness that raises the viewing experience by notches. The narrative takes us to an afternoon when a band of musicians awaits a recording session to get underway. Lead artiste Ma Rainey is yet to arrive. She is locked in a battle with her white manager-producer over control over the music she creates.
The film delves deep into the issues it tackles. In Chicago of the 1920s, a female Black singer taking on her manager, a white male, in itself renders a complex socio-cultural and political subtext to the narrative, as tension rises over the showdown.
The late Boseman’s casting imparts an interesting spin to the plot. He plays the band’s ambitious trumpeter Levee Green, whose personal and professional aspirations could have a direct impact on Ma Rainey’s story. His actions are pivotal in pushing the storyline to a point where the lives of the band members will be affected.
Boseman’s final act is intense, guaranteed to leave a lasting impact. His role of Levee Green is well penned. In turn, the actor reciprocates with a performance that is powerful enough to go down as one of his most unforgettable ever.
The film is structured to work as an interesting study of its primary characters. Amidst a shining cast, Viola Davis reiterates her class as an actor. Drawing full advantage from her authorbacked title role, she brings alive the fiery Ma Rainey with gusto.
The cast is richly complemented by Branford Marsalis’ soulful composition, which becomes an important protagonist of the musical drama. Indeed, the classy music of the film defines director Wolfe’s retro filmmaking vision, highlighted by the right pace (courtesy Andrew Mondshein’s editing) and photography (Tobias A. Schliessler)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, reiterates black lives matter, and draws universal relevance by focusing on the need for equilibrium in society, among different people.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts; Direction: George C. Wolfe
–ians, VINAYAK CHAKRAVORTY