Friday, November 20, 2020

REVIEW: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" - a stunning play now adapted for the big screen by director George C. Wolfe - would be nothing without the profound words of playwright August Wilson. But the earlier musings of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes also echo throughout this tragic tale about the black experience in America. Set in 1920s Chicago, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is a heartrending exploration of what can happen to a dream deferred. 

Of course, there's no greater dream than the American Dream, which for many black people in the post-reconstruction era was symbolized through The Great Migration. That mass exodus is quickly referenced in the film, whereby advertisements portrayed the North as the Promised Land for the downtrodden in the South, proclaiming a bounty of employment opportunities and a better life. But the fantasy soon gave way to disillusionment for many, including singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her upstart trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Despite achieving success as the "Mother of the Blues", Ma Rainey becomes weary of exploitation underlying her professional relationships with her white manager and producer. Meanwhile, Levee is still fueled by fierce ambition, despite his own experiences with trauma at the hands of white men. As they both fight to overcome their "glass ceilings," tensions also flare up between them and the rest of the band during one fateful recording session.

Before the characters get to dig into the dialogue of Ruben Santiago-Hudson's expressive screenplay, the music takes the spotlight. The film opens in a show-stopping number with Ma Rainey leading the way, letting us know how she got her esteemed moniker. As we're introduced to her in caked up makeup, gold teeth and striking figure, Ma Rainey is unforgettable even before she croons her first lyric. She is truly one of the year's most eye-catching creations of makeup, hairstyling and costume design.

It's through Viola Davis' incomparable acting, however, that Ma Rainey's commanding, unapologetic personality come to life. In a career full of memorable performances, this is her most transformative and challenging role to date. With every swish of her hips, sharp retort and indulgent gulp of Coca-Cola, she is the physical manifestation of a woman "taking up space" and "reclaiming her time." 

Unfortunately, all the talent, self-assurance and ambition is no match for institutional racism. And this is most painfully evoked through the perspective of Levee in his interactions with his band-mates (perfectly portrayed by Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts) and other characters. As he reflects upon the horrors of his past with an optimistic gaze towards his future, the bittersweet themes of the film hit home. Ultimately, Levee's struggles to fulfill his dreams take on an unanticipated metatextual resonance, as the late Chadwick Boseman's astonishingly dynamic and charismatic performance reminds us of a promising future that can no longer come to pass. I can hardly think of a more fitting final act for his career than this.