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.