It feels like a miracle not just to see Chadwick Boseman
grace the screen once more, but for his final role to come in an August Wilson work. Barring the Denzel Washington-directed Fences
, also starring Viola Davis, Wilson’s plays haven’t been cinematically adapted. A shame. Because few playwrights have captured the hopes, pains, and humor expressed by Black Americans with the same level of specificity as Wilson did. In the 15 years since his death from cancer, a cruelly ironic parallel to Boseman, his already substantial words have only gained greater importance. Furthermore, like Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, his plays offer Black actors a litmus test to gauge their own range and talent.Boseman and, for that matter, director George C. Wolfe chose a tall task by taking on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Based loosely on real-life blues singer Ma Rainey, the play instills charged monologues and big emotions, and a supernatural element familiar to Wilson’s best work, within a character, who swings without warning between exuberance and anger.
When Levee (Chadwick Boseman) first appears to us, he’s standing at the corner of a bustling Chicago intersection. Adorned in a black pinstripe suit, and topped by a green fedora, he first fixes his eyes on a pair of attractive women walking past him, then diverts them to a storefront window housing a pair of mustard-colored dress shoes, crossed with red laces. The flashy footwear, totemic not only of Levee’s newfound financial mobility, but also a new generation of energetic Blacks coming of age during the Jazz Age, will cause Levee great trouble — as they’re also symbolic of his hubris.
See, Levee has the type of assuredness that allows him, without hesitation, to spend his last $11 on shoes. It’s the type of confidence that warrants him bragging about the band he’ll soon form, and the music he’ll soon finish. But for all his pie in the sky aspirations, for now, he’s the youngest member of Ma Rainey’s band, an old-jug outfit composed of Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on stand-up bass, Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano, and Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone.
Ma Rainey is a hilarious film, and Boseman, through his coy smile, and displaying his full range, is equally hilarious in it. In fact, anyone familiar with the actor’s portrayal of James Brown in the biopic Get On Up, is aware of his talent for singing and dancing. He shows that same ability, here, as he effortlessly bounds and leaps across the screen, delivering sharp banter, such as his lampooning of the frazzled Toledo, that at once shows a boyish charm and an unceasing magnetism. While Boseman, through his evocative facial expressions, might ham it up, it’s difficult to fault him, not only because the character’s childish “I told you so” attitude invites such big swings, but because he’s having so much fun.
Ma Rainey is also a narrative concerned with artistic exploitation. While her manager Mr. Irvine (Jeremy Shamos), and the studio owner Mr. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), might find Ma (Viola Davis) difficult, she knows their gratuity only extends for as long as they need her. Therefore, this diva isn’t afraid to flex her power, such as demanding the inclusion of her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) on a track, even though he stutters. A magnetic frontwoman, she also holds a tight grip on her band, and an even closer eye on Levee, whose flirtatious gaze is fixed to Ma’s lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Though she’s not afforded the same show-stopping monologues as Boseman, Davis is the definition of swagger, especially in the performances of Ma’s songs, bluesy tunes that hint toward the pain felt by both Ma and Levee, two characters who have felt cheated by white people.Owing to its theatrical roots, Ma Rainey takes place, for the most part, in one of two areas: The spatial recording studio, on the main level, or the claustrophobic band room, located in the basement. With paint cracking from its walls, its broken brick floors, and its hot interior, the band room, gorgeously lit by Tobias A. Schliessler’s ethereal cinematography, is a kind of purgatory that invites the narrative’s supernatural elements to the forefront. For instance, in the band room is a locked door that Levee swears was located in a different place, yet the band claims never existed.
The room also serves as Levee’s interiority. The mood within it can switch between deprecating banter, like Levee making fun of Toledo’s plain shoes, to fiery explosions, such as Levee sharing his darkest nightmares with the band. Much to the chagrin of his bandmates, Levee also invites God’s wrath, first by cursing him, then by daring God to strike him down. Because at its heart: Ma Rainey isn’t just a parable about hubris in the face of divine retribution, Wilson is also asking why God allows bad things to happen to good people, especially Black people.
Boseman has to convey a large range of emotions in short order. Set in 1927, at the height of the Great Migration, when Blacks moved to northern cities like Chicago in the hopes of escaping the South’s oppressive racial systems, Levee is a vessel not only for the hopes these traveling Blacks harbored, but the disappointment they found, and the traumatic baggage they carried with them. It’s a feeling Wolfe conveys, first, in the film’s opening montage, which utilizes black and white photographs of African Americans traveling north, then in Toledo’s ill-fitting monologues about the plight of the colored man. But it’s the rage Boseman expresses, the hurt that floods from his eyes, which actualizes the pain of a generation, and somehow guides us, without one false step, to the film’s surprisingly somber end.
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