Chadwick Boseman

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

Da 5 Bloods

12/06/20

A new Spike Lee film is generally a cause for considerable excitement. From She’s Gotta Have It, way back in 1986, to Do the Right Thing and his recent renaissance with BlackKkKLansman, Lee has always been the master of righteous indignation, a director whose beliefs are right at the forefront of his work and who never backs down from uncomfortable truths. And of course, in the time of Black Lives Matter, his voice carries extra authority.

And now here’s Da 5 Bloods, released without much trumpeting onto Netflix. It opens like a documentary, complete with vintage footage of Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X and shocking images from the war in Vietnam – indeed, the references come so thick and fast over the opening credits, it’s hard to keep up with them.

Yet, this is no documentary. The meat of the film is a story about four Vietnam veterans, who reunite to go back to their old battleground on a seemingly altruistic mission to recover the remains of their late comrade, ‘Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), buried somewhere deep in the jungle. But there’s another, less laudable reason for their return.  Concealed near his grave is a cache of American gold bullion, originally intended to pay South Vietnamese allies. The four amigos, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jnr), see no reason why they shouldn’t collect that at the same time. After all, haven’t they paid for it in blood, sweat and tears?

At the last instant, they are joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), who is cut in for a share. And off they go into deep jungle, assisted by a Vietnamese guide, Vinh (Johnny Nguyen), and financed by shady French entrepreneur, Leroche (Jean Reno), in a story that openly references the likes of Apocalypse Now and, more specifically, John Huston’s classic adventure,  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

As ever with Lee, there’s no doubting the sincerity of his vision, and it’s clear that his anger about the way black troops were used as cannon fodder during the war is the heat that fuels this adventure – but it also has to be said that much of what goes on in deep jungle feels decidedly far-fetched and at times (dare I say it?) a crushingly predictable take on The Pardoner’s Tale. We also witness flashbacks to the foursome’s time as soldiers, where the eponymous bloods look exactly the same as they do now and Norman, young enough to be their son. Of course, this is intentional (it’s them looking back on the events) but it’s a bold move that takes a little getting used to.

Ultimately, Da 5 Bloods is neither fish nor fowl. It could either have been a powerful documentary about the exploitation of black lives at a time of war, or a gung-ho rumble- in-the-jungle adventure, mixing laughter and violence in equal measure. With typical ambition, Lee tries for both with the result that neither strand feels entirely convincing. It’s also puzzling when a director with such a breadth of experience allows an absolutely risible plot point to make it on to the screen. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Da 5 Bloods has already been garlanded with high praise from several quarters, but for me, at least, it’s not up there with Lee’s finest work. What’s more, with a running time of two hours and thirty four minutes, there are sections here that feel more gruelling than they needed to.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Black Panther

24/02/18

For those viewers who, like me, are suffering from a bad case of spandex overload, help is at hand in the form of a Marvel superhero movie that doesn’t really feel like anything that’s gone before it. You thought Thor: Ragnarok pushed the envelope? Wait till you get a load of Black Panther!

In what is only his third film, director Ryan Coogler offers a powerful and confident take on the genre, an action film that gets so many things right it’s hard to resist its considerable charms. And I’m not just referring to the fact that the film is almost completely inhabited by black characters – that it’s a celebration of Africa and its culture – that there are so many strong, positive roles for women. This is an object lesson on how to reinvent and subvert a tired and over-familiar concept.

We first meet the hero of the film, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), just after the death of his father, as he is about to become the King of Wakanda, a mythical African nation that, after a meteor strike back in its history, has blossomed into a technologically advanced wonderland, thanks to an abundance of vibranium, the precious metal that gives Wakanda’s leaders their superpowers and allows them to transform into the titular hero. But no sooner is T’Challa on the throne than he finds himself drawn into a dangerous mission. His old adversary, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, revelling in the chance to strut his stuff, for once, without having to wear a motion capture suit), has stolen an ancient artefact made from vibranium and is planning to sell it to the highest bidder. He is aided in the robbery by the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who clearly has some personal axe to grind with T’Challa…

There’s some fabulous world-building going on here and I particularly love the performance of Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s teenage sister, Shuri, who plays a sort of Q figure, providing her big bother with a whole string of incredible hardware to enable him to complete his mission. A lengthy sequence in a Korean casino followed by a frenetic car chase could have wandered in from a Bond movie and, if the makers of that franchise are ever stuck for a director, Coogler would make an interesting choice  – but I digress.

The film soon ventures into more familiar superhero territory, but even the usual CGI-augmented punchup at the conclusion doesn’t go on interminably – a problem that mars the otherwise enjoyable Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok – and better still, this one has rhinos! Best of all for me, Marvel finally has a more interesting and nuanced villain than the usual ‘bent-on-world-domination’ cliche that is habitually trotted out. Fans of the Marvel EU will want to stay in their seats through the (very long) end credits because there are two extra scenes on offer, one of which ties up a loose end from an earlier film.

Purists will inevitably complain that Black Panther doesn’t stick closely enough to the established conventions of the genre but, for me at least, this is a very welcome step in the right direction.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney