August Wilson’s poetic love affair with the blues has now transferred from the stage to the big screen ( mine’s 58 inches ! ) and it’s a sure-fire hit. The eponymous Ma Rainey is based on a real-life blues singer who did indeed travel North with her band to Chicago in 1927 to record for big white recording company bosses.
The journey is symbolic of the Great Migration which saw millions of black people move from the south in search of golden opportunities that rarely came their way.
From Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation, director George C Wolfe creates a torrid, fractious mood among Wilson’s characters, to reflect the stifling sunless heat of the season.
Viola Davis is outstanding as the larger-than-life cantankerous singing star who takes on the white bosses and is determined to get her own way, while knowing her future depends on a successful record contract as others jostle to modernise her slightly outdated blues style. But for now, she’s afraid of nothing, flaunting her girlfriend Dussie Mae for all to see.
One such young contender stands before her – the talented but self-opinionated and swaggering trumpet player, Levee, played to perfection by the marvellous Chadwick Boseman in the last appearance of his tragically cut-short life .
The film scores on many levels – a beautiful photographic representation of the 1920’s, a story full of human tragedy and stoic resolve, a symbol of the fight black people still face in the USA for equality, respect and fairness.
But Wilson is clever not to just proselytise about black rights. He gives us genuine human interest stories of ordinariness, elevated by his almost musical dialogue. Boseman has a staggeringly complex emotional rollercoaster of a monologue – incredibly long for a modern film – explaining his tragic upbringing. It’s as gripping on the screen as it must have been onstage.
The pace of the story is as slow as the blues the band play but when idle chat erupts into violent action the effect is electrifying.
There’s talk that if the Oscars reappear this year that Boseman, star of Black Panther, is a certainty for a posthumous statuette. It’s no recompense for his early death but as Ma Rainey producer Denzil Washington says in the accompanying documentary “ We’ll always have him on film.”
The documentary is well worth a watch to learn about the making of the film and the film itself is getting a second viewing from me for sure. It’s passionate, tough, unsettling , difficult and wonderful.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix.
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