At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom “2020”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige, Dusan Brown, Jonny Coyne, Jeremy Shamos/ Runtime: 94 minutes

I think it is safe to start this review off by stating that in the immediate aftermath of the tragic and untimely demise of film star Chadwick Boseman this past year, there are now a lot of moments in his filmography which are now impacting and hitting all of us who loved the work this true talent brought us a bit different than they had the first time we saw them be it at home or in theaters. Indeed the moments in the film Get on Up from 2014 where we see Boseman’s take on legendary musician James Brown making statements about he intends to live his life as boldly as he possibly can due to his feeling that he was “born dead” kind of hit harder now that we know Boseman was actually battling cancer around the time he shot that. Then there is also T’Challa’s time that he spent in the Wakandian afterlife visiting his dear ol’ dad and other ancestors from the past in 2018’s Black Panther which is now way more emotional and potent than ever. Heck even his time on screen in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods from earlier this year as Stormin’ Norman who operates in the film as an apparitional mentor of sorts to the titular squad is time on screen that now more than ever should hold new meaning to all of us who have come to appreciate this truly amazing man and the contributions he made to movie magic as a whole.

Yes this emotional impact is by no means intentional, but now more than ever they do leave quite the effect. With all of that being said however, it should be noted that the slice of cinematic pie I am reviewing today, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom from film helmer George C. Wolfe is one that is coming our way under circumstances that are both more special and infinitely more emotional as well. That is because this film is the very last one that Chadwick made before he tragically passed on and instead of being able to think about it differently after seeing it, each and every one of you is going to have to take that knowledge with you into this film both the very first time you see it and every single time you watch it after that. As a result, I feel it is integral to let you know some things right off the bat. The first of these things is the fact that this is the last role we will ever see this truly gifted man perform 110% does have an impact on your viewing experience and it does make it quite difficult to sit through at times. The other however, and something I hope you can perhaps take some comfort and solace in, is the fact that had this film not been the last movie he ever made it would still be seen as a truly potent and powerful time to be had watching a movie. Indeed make no mistake movie lover this is not only a very powerful slice of cinematic pie, but in the hands of this cast, especially Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman it not only becomes downright electric and magnetic, but it also becomes a riveting swan song for a performer whose heart and talent should never be questioned especially when they could be seen in every single performance that he gave.

The plot is as follows: In the aftermath of Denzel Washington’s directorial/acting duties on Fences about 4 years ago, as of this writing, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the next slice of cinematic pie to be an adaptation of a play by the playwright known as August Wilson and for this journey around the block as it were takes you the viewer back in time to that long gone decade known as the roaring 20s and places us in the city of Chicago where we as movie goers get to be excited witnesses to truly icon singer Ma Rainey, also known by those who love her music as the “Mother of the Blues,” as she gets ready to start work on a brand new album for the masses to enjoy. However due to the fact that Rainey has something of a reputation for being quite….difficult shall we say it isn’t unusual for her manager to be on literal pins and needles when it comes to his client especially when the owner of the recording studio where Ma records is literally breathing down his neck at what feels like every waking moment, but especially when Ma is running late….as she just so happens to be when our story starts. Despite that though, we soon pay witness as the rest of her band including trombone whiz Cutler, piano magician Toledo, and bassist extraordinaire Slow Drag all begin filing and subsequently setting up shop in the rehearsal room. Oh and there is one more player in this guess I should also introduce you to: the band’s truly gifted trumpet player Levee who arrives later than everyone else since he was purchasing a new pair of shoes for himself with earnings from a poker game he was part of the night before. Yet we soon learn that it isn’t just the new kicks that has Levee all abuzz with an almost maniacal glee. Rather it is also the fact that not only has Irvin decided to go with his arrangement for the song “Black Bottom” for the new record, but he has also been making progress in both composing some new music whilst also assembling his own band. Unfortunately for him, Ma Rainey has been seeing what he is up to and she, to put it mildly, just isn’t a fan of being stepped on in order for someone else to make it to the top of the game. As such, she makes the decision to go with her original take of “Black Bottom” over Levee’s, but in doing so inadvertently ignites a powder keg of conflict and ever increasing pain which soon sees quite a few painful truths and downright brutal opinions soon come out and into the open in a way that will affect everyone involved forever….

Now as was seen with Fences back in 2016, this cinematic adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a film that does in a lot of ways give off the vibe that it’s a play for the theater which has been transformed into a feature film. Yet instead of being a detractor in any way, this actually proves to be a positive for both film helmer George C. Wolfe and the talented cast and crew, including Denzel who here operates in a producer’s role only, he has assembled to bring this riveting story to life. Indeed it’s not exactly what you might call a bottled up narrative seeing as there is material in the film which does happen outside the main recording studio setting and characters do sometimes leave and then reenter the film, but in terms of a potent and quite riveting atmosphere this film is perhaps the very definition of a bottled narrative and that’s ultimately what matters. Make no mistake: it is already excruciatingly hot in terms of temperature which can be measured in either Fahrenheit or Celsius in the recording studio at the beginning of the story, but from that moment on the temperature from a metaphorical perspective just continues to soar and soar until you feel things are about to hit a critical point and just explode and not in a good way. Suffice it to say then that is both impressively conducted and Wolfe does an absolutely amazing job of leaving you gasping for a nice refreshing blast of cool air when all is said and done.

Ultimately though, since the vast majority of the pathos which occurs in this film occurring in only a pair of locations which take the forms of either the studio proper or the band’s rehearsal area in the studio’s basement and there are only a handful, but still quite potent musical moments to be found, this slice of cinematic pie wisely chooses to let the task of intriguing and keeping the audience hooked fall on the truly gifted cast of performers involved. Yet even though this is one film where the whole cast is truly top-notch in every sense of the word, it is still incredible to me to see just how intensely both Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman are able to shine through in this. Indeed equipped with both potently dark makeup around her eyes and front teeth that have been capped, Viola Davis’ turn as Ma Rainey in this before anything else will immediately throw you for a curve, but that’s just for starters. I say that because Davis has such a riveting presence in this slice of cinematic pie that she just as well might be throwing knives into every room that she enters. Indeed this is a woman who not only makes every guy feel tiny in the worst way possible, but she is also terrifying in how she utilizes her stature even when it comes to simple things like requiring a bottle of soda before she sings period. Yet whilst it’s also at the same time an intriguing balancing act from a narrative perspective since Ma operates as both the story’s protagonist and antagonist, it says a lot when Davis and the strong performance she manages to give is consistent through and through. However if you want the performance that is the opposite of the tightrope engaged in by Viola Davis then look no further than that of Chadwick Boseman who, in the role of Levee, gives perhaps one of the finest if not the finest performance he ever gave. Indeed right from the word go Boseman’s charisma and confidence are truly mesmerizing and a sight to behold. Yet as the various conflicts in the narrative go on they really begin to get to him and the emotional metamorphosis is truly heartwrenching. To that end, we see that Boseman is given a set of potent and emotionally riveting monologues that showcase just what drives him in this life and just how he sees the world and they are truly tear jerking in many respects. Oh and yes, as stated earlier, their emotional impact is further magnified by the truly heartwrenching untimely demise of Chadwick Boseman. Indeed you really can’t help, but see some truly emotional and meta context as we see Levee slam God for letting the terrible things in this world happen and see some eerie similarities between Levee’s ambition being stomped out and Boseman’s tragic passing taking away the possibility of him being able to continue to give us performances such as this one for years to come. Yes it is heartbreaking, its gut wrenching, but it does contribute an incredible potency to the overall movie.

All in all I think that it should be said that a fairly decent size amount of film icon Chadwick Boseman’s time spent up on that silver screen was concerned with not only bringing some truly iconic figures to the screen including but not limited to Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and even the King of Wakanda himself T’Challa, but also in ensuring that his performance as each of these icons was something that would be remembered forever. Yet even though he did an absolutely astounding job as each of these men and others as well, I think it will be his performance as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, however that will see his status as an icon of the silver screen sealed for all time. Indeed that is because not only does he give perhaps the most soulful performance of his sadly cut-short career, and that’s saying a lot, but because the movie itself on both sides of the camera is just that darn good. More than anything though this is a film that, as stated previously, acts as a heartbreaking and solemn farewell to a man who might have thought himself just a common man, but to a lot of us will always be royalty. Not only in how he lived, but in the performances he left for us to enjoy now and always. On a scale of 1-5 I proudly and emotionally give Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a solid 4 out of 5.