Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Be Damned, This Is Chadwick Boseman’s Final Hurrah

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom(Netflix)

Starring  Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman

Directed  by  George  C  Wolfe

Rating:  *** ½ 

Note: One extra star rating only for  Boseman

Forget the  qualities  of  the  film, and  just watch the film for our Black Panther star  Chadwick Boseman. This  is his  farewell performance  before he died  so suddenly on us.To know that the late  actor  went through this gruelling part  which requires  massive  amounts of emotional and  physical  investment, while struggling with cancer , is to  be inspired and motivated for all  times to come.

 To be honest, I thought all those  words of praise  being heaped on Boseman’s performance were  a part of  the posthumous hysteria that every actor’s  post-death  release  is subjected  to. But no. This is indeed a great  performance in  a not-so-great film.No words are enough to describe Boseman’s   powerful grip over a  slippery character who is  far more troubled than he outwardly seems.

The film  set in Chicago in  the 1920s based on August Wilson’s  celebrated 1984 play,  unfolds   in a recording studio which has seen better days, where a bunch of  blues musicians(all brilliantly playing musicians  who  play brilliantly) await  the  singing  diva Ma Rainey,  played with vigorous  flamboyance  by Viola Davis  whom normally  I’d watch most diligently.

Not this  time. Sorry, Ms Davis. I had eyes and ears only for Mr  Chadwick and  it had nothing to do with his death. The minute he  walks into the  gloomy  dingy  recording studio , Boseman takes over the show  like  a true boss-man. His  appearance , body language  and  gait are completely  reformed. I couldn’t connect the raging trumpeter in  this film (with a very strange  title) with  Boseman in The Black Panther, 21 Bridges and  Da 5 Blood(the last mentioned film and Boseman’s performance in it I didn’t connect with at  all).

Chadwick’s  trumpet blowing performance will blow your mind. Oscar? He deserves  a lot more.In his monologue on how as a child he watched his  mother being raped, Chadwick will  give you goosebumps.I wish the  film was as  great as  Chadwick’s performance(and  the  rest of  cast  which is  probably  impeccable, I guess I will know during a second  viewing).But it  is not. 

The pace is sluggish and  the  musical pieces are played with the self-congratulatory air   of  one who  has seen  it all. The tone lacks a combustive spontaneity, so  crucial to the  efficacy  of  the film about Black blues musician struggling to conquer racist  snubs. Into this  cauldron of prejudice walks  in this singing  diva  with her entourage  of  nephew and girlfriend(was she  a lesbian?). The effect should  have been electric. It is  not.

 The  toasted-brown  mood and colours  of  the cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler are rapturously evocative. But I am  afraid there is room  for   only one  hero in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and it’s not Ma Raineyor her  bottom.And that’s  the  bottom line.

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