November 20, 2020
The movie version of August Wilson’s story of the blues, starring Boseman and a tremendous Viola Davis, is a ferocious opera of passion and pain
Ma Raineys Black Bottom review – Chadwick Boseman glorious in his final film role
A detonation of pure acting firepower is what’s on offer in this movie version of August Wilson’s 1982 stage play. Declarative and theatrical it might be, but it’s also ferociously intelligent and violently focused, an opera of passion and pain. We see African-American musicians hanging around a white-owned Chicago studio one stiflingly hot day in the 1920s, waiting for the legendary blues Singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey to show up with her entourage so they can cut an album. The lead track is expected to be her live hit, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and the drama imagines a certain pushy trumpeter in the band named Levee angling for his own version to be recorded. A simmering argument about how this song is to be arranged and performed forms the basis of a confrontation about race, sex and power.
Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey with tremendous hauteur: Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth I never arrived at Hampton Court with more magnificent display or more queenly prerogative than Davis’s Rainey making her entrance, with her own lovers and court favourites, sweating at the temperature, her painful feet and the incompetence of the studio chiefs. And Chadwick Boseman gives a moving performance as the fiercely talented but insecure Levee, crucified by a childhood experience of racist violence and dreaming of fronting his own band.
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