August Wilson

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

20/12/20

Netflix

The chances are you’ve never heard of Ma Rainey before: I know I hadn’t.

A quick glance at Wikipedia confirms that she was one of the earliest African-American blues singers, an entrepreneur who started her career on the Southern Vaudeville circuit in the early nineteen hundreds and who, through the twenties, became known as ‘Mother of the Blues.’ As the decade rolled on, she made a series of recordings, which introduced Blues music to a new – predominantly white – market.

It’s summer 1927 and Ma (Viola Davis) has ventured North to Chicago to lay down some tracks for the Paramount record label at the urging of her white manager, Irving (Jeremy Shamos). Her musicians duly arrive to back her up, among them a young and ambitious horn player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Unlike the other members of the band, he senses that the wind of change is in the air and that America is developing a new taste for jazz stylings. He’s eager to be a part of it. His fellow musicians, Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), urge him to toe the line. Ma is a tough cookie and he’d do well to do as she tells him, but he’s got his own reasons for wanting to spread his wings…

Director George C. Wolfe offers a lean, powerful adaptation of August Wilson’s original play, which is essentially a lament for the way in which prosperous white record producers continually took vibrant black music and bent it to their own whims, earning vast sums of money into the bargain – little of which went to the original artistes. In the titular role, Davis offers a brooding, snarling study of a embittered woman who knows only to well how her music is being stolen from her and who steadfastly refuses to lick the boots of the men who are taking it – even haranguing them when they neglect to offer her chilled Coca Cola in the sweltering confines of the studio.

But of course, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also turns out to be Chadwick Boseman’s final performance and, at times, he comes close to stealing the show. It’s hard to believe that this passionate and talented young actor has already been taken from us. His performance here makes for a memorable farewell but it’s tragic to consider what else he might have achieved had he been given the chance. Levee is a compelling character, the product of horrifying events in his childhood, which have only served to fuel his overpowering desire to make good as a musician – but it is an ambition that will, ultimately, consume and destroy him.

There are some splendid musical interludes, but not so many that they overpower the drama – and, as the temperature rises and tempers begin to fray, there’s plenty of that to relish. The final musical sequence brilliantly pins down the kind of cultural appropriation that forms the central tenet of this film. Netflix has been raising its game in recent months and this is another success for them.

Watch it, and not just to say goodbye to Mr Boseman.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Fences

05/02/17

Fences is a compelling movie, with towering performances from each of its actors. Adapted by August Wilson from his play of the same name, it tells the tale of an African-American refuse collector, Troy Maxson, and is a searing indictment of the American Dream. The film wears its theatrical origins with pride; there’s little attempt here to render the claustrophobic domestic story more cinematic: we rarely venture beyond Troy’s half-fenced yard.

Denzel Washington is Troy, a Willy Loman-esque character, reflecting bitterly on a  lifetime of thwarted ambitions and unrealised dreams. Indeed, the whole piece is very reminiscent of Death of a Salesman, and just as unflinching in its exposure of the fallacies we are sold. Washington’s performance is stunning: Troy is just about as flawed as a man can be – he’s selfish, demanding, dictatorial and often wrong – but we are always aware of the insecurities that drive him; we can always see the vulnerability that lurks beneath the brute. We might not like him, but he has our sympathy.

Viola Davis is equally irresistible, exuding depth and dignity; the characterisation here is impeccable. Powerless to protect her son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), from his father’s injustice, she nevertheless holds up a mirror to her errant husband, and doesn’t let him shy away from the truth of who he is. When Troy betrays her, her anguish is palpable – but so is her love. And it’s this love, I think, that holds the piece together, and redeems Troy – sort of – in the end.

Denzel Washington’s direction is confident and assured. The film builds slowly towards the inevitable tragedy at its heart and, for the most part, this pace works well. I felt the last half hour dragged a little, with perhaps too much crammed in to what is essentially a coda – but overall, there’s not much to complain of here. It’s a fascinating, well-told, cautionary tale. The Oscar nomination is very well-deserved.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield