Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis give an acting masterclass in Netflix's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.'

By Leah Greenblatt
November 20, 2020 at 12:00 PM EST
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It’s no mystery why so many movie stars seem to gravitate, at some point in their careers, to theater. What green-screened franchise can compete with the thrill and immediacy, the sheer soliloquy of words promised by taking the stage six days a week, plus matinees?

Broadway has been shuttered for months now of course, and will be indefinitely. But Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a jewel in the crown of the late August Wilson’s acclaimed Pittsburgh Cycle (though in fact it takes place almost entirely in Chicago) is exactly the kind of chewy, loquacious showcase even the most decorated performers — including Viola Davis, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn in the 2017 film version of Wilson’s Fences — dream of.

Credit: David Lee/Netflix

As the titular Ma, Davis doesn’t just sing the blues, she personifies it; her voice a low libidinous rumble and her makeup a Technicolor smear, she rules the nightclubs and juke joints of a certain 1920s circuit. And she is indubitably great — a hip-rolling force of nature in her flocked velvets and gold-capped teeth, issuing queenly commands on how she likes her girls (demure), her soda pop (cold), and her songs (slow and low).

To live in Ma’s world is to serve her, or suffer the consequences: everyone from the petulant young lover (Taylour Paige) and speech-impaired nephew (Dusan Brown) who make up her small entourage to the band of old hands (including Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts) who back her on constant, obedient standby. Even a prosperous white producer (Jeremy Shamos) — nearly all the action unfolds over the course of a single day in a recording studio — scrambles to please the woman whose passing whims may mean the difference between getting her down on vinyl or watching her (and his musical profits) walk away.

The lone exception in all this is Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a brash young trumpeter with the blazing ambition to match his daffodil-yellow shoes. Scrappy but hungry, he can't wait to take a bite out of it all; the kind of dreamer with no patience for anything but big swings when it comes to work, women, and other appetites. That portends trouble for him, and sometimes for the script (adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) too, whose natural lean toward speechifying and high melodrama has a tendency to land heavier on screen.

Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe (Angels in America) takes care to mitigate his confined setting with some cinematic Jazz Age noise and flair — moonshine, shiny cars, city life thrumming just outside the doors — but the resonance in Rainey (in theaters Nov. 25 and streaming on Netflix Dec. 18) rests largely on his actors' ability to bring the stagier cadences of Wilson's sprawling, famously dense monologues down to human scale.

If Davis hadn't already taken home Oscar gold so recently, she'd almost certainly claim another prize here for the raw transformative verve of her performance; it's more than possible she still might. It's Boseman, though, in his final appearance on screen, who makes both the bitter and the sweet of the story sing: a pointed arrow of hurt, hope, and untapped fury, heartbreakingly alive in every scene. Grade: B 

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