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.