‘Ma Rainey’ soars as tale of Black experience in America

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Rated R. On Netflix.
Grade: A minus
A major American cultural artifact, August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is part of Wilson’s 10-play cycle of works, chronicling the 20th century African-American experience. It opened in 1984, has been revived several times and addresses such topics as racism, religion and the Black man and woman’s place in American society. This film adaptation was produced by Denzel Washington, who appeared in a 2016 adaptation of another Wilson classic, “Fences.” The director of “Ma Rainey” is two-time Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe.
One of the greatest ironies of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is that Ma Rainey (a towering, operatic turn by Viola Davis) is a pioneering blues artist, whose records could make a fortune for many people, herself included, and who makes a grand living on tour in the South. But she is just another Black woman as far as most white people in 1920 Chicago are concerned. When the action begins, Ma is on the way in her fancy car to a recording session in Chicago with her young lover Dussie Mae (a magnetic Taylour Paige) and her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). The studio and session are run by two middle-aged white men, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who is also Ma’s manager and the buffer between Ma and what one might call the “white world,” and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), an immigrant who can barely keep his flagrant racism in check.
This image released by Netflix shows Michael Potts, from left, Glynn Turman and Colman Domingo in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (David Lee/Netflix via AP)
Like all rock stars to follow, Ma, aka the Mother of the Blues, has her demands, a cold bottle of Coca-Cola among them. The band – Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano, Cutler (Coleman Domingo) on trombone, Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman) on trumpet and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass – arrive before Ma and gather in a basement room to rehearse. Toledo is the group philosopher, offering wisdom on a variety of subjects. Cutler is all business, which causes him and Levee to butt heads over a number of things. One of them is Levee’s desire to seduce Dussie Mae and change arrangements to make the music more urban and easier to dance to. Levee also wants to start his own band and has just bought a pair of gold-colored shoes, a metaphor for his high self-opinion and his dreams.
Like everything else, they get stepped on. The issues raised in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” are as timely as can be. They include the sexual assault of a Black woman by a white gang, the exploitation of Black artists by white businessmen and a Black American man’s sense of identity.
This image released by Netflix shows Chadwick Boseman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (David Lee/Netflix via AP)
When Boseman’s Levee tells the story of how he saw his mother raped by a gang of white men when he was 8 years old, it’s heartbreaking and will likely give Boseman a deserved, posthumous Oscar nomination. For her part, Davis’s Ma Rainey has learned from hard-earned experience just how much she can demand from white men and how much she will take from the male musicians in her band. To the Black crowd she performs for in a tent in the opening sequence, Ma is nothing less than oracle, singing of sexual desire, dreams and fulfillment to an audience that deeply knows the musical language she speaks. The film’s space is tight, and I didn’t know what to make of that locked ventilation shaft. But this “Ma Rainey” sings in a voice that reaches into our hearts and minds. It’s the music and story of America.
(“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” contains profanity and sexually suggestive content)

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