'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom': A gift transcending time and barriers
Uh one... Uh two... Uh you know what to do... The vintage-style posters of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom were enough to whet curiosity about the film. This Netflix production did know how to tug the heartstrings of its audience by teasing images of Chadwick Boseman, while Viola Davis gets on a musical high. We expected nothing less than a masterpiece.
The film transports you to the 1920s Chicago, as you see a trio of Fedora-capped gentlemen walking with their instruments, all the while keeping a safe distance from "The Whites" only to drop their guard inside their studio. They're on time, setting the arrangement for Southern sensation Ma Rainey, who will reach when she decides to. They also wait for horn player Levee.
Now, cut to Rainey, whom her manager Irvin calls correctly as the "Mother of Blues" and not the lesser "Queen". She screens the condescending white folks like they are dirt and throws her weight around in the studio like she is doing a record company a favor with her presence. She is high-maintenance, not by money, but by attention.
That attention is well-deserved as Davis portrays Rainey's mountain of an ego fantastically. Watching her get under that skin is a pleasure. To command such sensuality from an imposing and frightening appearance is tough, but Davis not only lip-syncs but also hip-syncs with most of Rainey's songs sung by Maxayn Lewis. The soundtrack by jazz composer and saxophinist Branford Marsalis entices you.
But times are a-changin'! Classic Blues, a genre Rainey has founded and is known for, is facing a roadblock in North America where swing jazz is gaining ground. People no longer want to stay on the melody. They want to dance no matter what the song is about. This ideological clash is crippling Rainey from the inside as she puts up an impenetrable front.
This is where the dying man comes into the picture. The one who had the guts to be late for a session headlined by Rainey is Levee, played by late veteran actor Boseman. Levee is everything Rainey wishes to avoid. A musician of color, Levee has the rare talent of writing music and refuses to obey Rainey for he infuses the music of dance.
And, Levee has his eyes in the wrong place. No matter how his senior bandmates warn against pursuing Rainey's arm candy Dussie Mae, Levee never follows. He becomes a storm coming for the fellow band members who just want their cut in the session and make good because his audacity is steeped deep within hard luck and a thirst for musical versatility.
Like a wounded bird taking its flight before death, Boseman's screen-presence is colossal. You get wicked with his plans. You frown at his audacity and yet, you have your limbs trembling with shock when he narrates how he learned to play the "White Man". As Davis put it, Boseman did squeeze the life out of him into this role. This masterpiece gets a full 5/5.