HOLLYWOOD—Do you want to see some good acting, well you’re about to see it in the drama “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in titans Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. This movie is infused with ton of drama, but let me clarify because some might think it’s a musical; it is not. There is a very interesting dynamic where you have two musicians, one who is at the top of her game in Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) going to war with another musician, Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman), who is focusing on obtaining the same limelight as the woman he works for.
Ma Rainey and Levee’s dynamic is one of major interest, as we see jealousy between both of them. Ma Rainey is scared that Levee may come and take over her musical prowess. It is apparent Levee wants everything that Ma has as he battles with her over musical delivery and tone, as well as chasing after Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), Ma’s lover. Ma and Levee are not too different if you look close at each character.
All I can say is that Boseman delivers a performance that is not just scene stealing, but shows the talent of this man as an actor. There is a scene in this movie that will tear your soul apart. It is riveting, explosive, emotional and powerful as hell. It is acting at its best, and very well may be the scene that earns him that posthumous Oscar. If he is NOT nominated for Best Actor it will indeed be an absolute travesty America. It is hands down one of the best scenes I’ve witnessed in cinema in years. It is a shame that we lost this talent way too early. Davis at times, over stretches the character in the beginning of the movie in my opinion, but the more the character is seen on the screen, that caricature in my honest opinion starts to dissipate.
There are solid supporting roles from Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts, as members of Ma Rainey’s band. They each add a unique dynamic to this band where everyone has an ego and they’re all fighting to some degree to have the spotlight or to have their voice heard. We hear tales about women, the White man, racism, music, and religion. The dynamic the movie tackles in regards to the issue of religion is one that is quite compelling especially as it relates to Levee and his beliefs.
Levee is a bit of a know it all, and his bandmates Cutler (Domingo), Toledo (Turman) and Slow Drag (Potts) each try to teach him a thing or two about the music industry and his quest to become a star, but Levee doesn’t listen. He learns a valuable lesson near the big climax of the movie as a result.
Davis does indeed bring a unique presence on the screen in her portrayal of Ma Rainey. When she appears you are compelled by her charisma and charm; this is a woman who is a boss and she demands respect and she takes no sh** from anyone. Something those around her seem to envy, including her nephew who suffers from a debilitating stutter that his aunt actually embraces, while others make fun of it. The same can be said for Boseman’s portrayal of Levee, whose level of arrogance is ultimately his downfall. If he could just listen to the words being spoken to those who are a bit older and wiser than him, he would better understand how to approach certain situations.
The one caveat I have about the film is a really wanted to know a bit more about Ma Rainey herself. The audience is introduced to this woman, who has teeth that I didn’t even know existed in the 1920s, with a bravo of sexuality that some would argue was not tolerated at the time. Ma is introduced to the audience at the height of her career, we don’t learn about the struggles she endured or overcame to reach that tent pole which is unfortunate in my honest opinion. She delivers slight hints about them, but we don’t actually get to see them. It would have added another layer to an already complex character and elevated the narrative for the viewer.
This movie is very intimate; you become immersed in this recording studio where a vast majority of the song making and madness transpires. The only character’s life who we see outside of this world is Ma, and it’s a minor glimpse at best. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has a narrative that is a small thread, but it’s the performances by Boseman and Davis that really carry this movie and is a showcase of a talented actor and actress doing what they know how to do best when the director yells “action.” It is truly a feat to witness.