“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” comes to Netflix with all its poetry, theatricality, fire and guts intact.
It’s always been a showcase for the right cast, and stage and screen director George C. Wolfe and stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman more than do justice to August Wilson’s most approachable, entertaining play.
Awash in African American history, grievance, fury and the blues, a viewer — remembering how “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson” beat it to the screen — might fairly wonder “What took so damn long?”
Wolfe, one of the great stage directors of our time but a generally pedestrian screen director (“Nights in Rodanthe,” “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”) opens the show up even as he brings the action, arguments and Big Themes right into our face.
And Davis and Boseman do the rest, with the Oscar winner milking Wilson’s greatest female role for all it’s worth and Boseman making us sad at all he was and all we lost much too soon, all over again.
A late 1920s recording session in Chicago is the crucible that grinds these characters together. The historic Ma Rainey (Davis) is an older jazz singer, already a legend in some quarters, and well paid for it on her many tent tours of the South. She’s not shy about flaunting it, or about showing off her latest girlfriend (Taylour Paige). And she’s got no patience for recording studios, the white man (Jonathan Coyne) who runs it or the manager (Jeremy Shamos) who begs her to cut a few sides.
But here she is, at Hot Rhythm Records, ready to record a few songs. Maybe they won’t be the songs Sturdyvant (Coyne) wants. Maybe they won’t be performed the way Irvin (Shamos) believes would turn them into hits. As they have to be cut in one take in this pre-mixing board/tape-or-digital-recording era, things are more likely to be tense than fun.
And then there’s the band, led by conservative trombonist Cutler (Coleman Domingo) but fired by hot new trumpeter Levee (Boseman). Whatever the imperious, insecure and ever-tardy “Mother of Blues” has on her agenda, the bickering that goes on in the band room is next-level heated.
Levee’s annoyance with “old jug band music” and fondness for dance tempos and solos rub Cutler the wrong way.
“This ain’t one of them ‘hot bands,'” he grouses. Levee needs to remember his place, that he’s in an “accompanist band.” What Ma wants is what Ma gets.
Levee wants to play his own songs, or at least his own arrangements. He’s ready to start his own band. And he’s been making eyes at Ma’s latest, Dussie May (Paige). Nothing like a hot day in a recording studio to bring the resentment, disappointment and competition to a head.
Michael Potts is Slow Drag, the reliable bass player. The delightful Glynn Turman (co-star with Davis of “How to Get Away With Murder” and famous for “A Different World”) is Toledo, the bookish, folksy old piano player. He’s the philosopher of this ensemble, a bit put out at Levee’s bragging and upset-the-apple-cart behavior.
“That’s the trouble with colored folks, always trying to have a good time.”
Levee talks a good game, all “If my daddy hadda knowed I’s gonna turn out like this, he woulda named me Gabriel!” But it doesn’t take much scratching to bring out the burdens he and the rest of them carry in lives circumscribed and threatened because of race.
Davis, dressed down, channeling a call to perform and a life of grievance and humiliation, makes Ma a diva we can identify with — masking insecurity with assertions of “MY way” control.
“I ain’t doing nothing without my Co-Cola!”
She delivers the story’s bigger theme with somber resignation in between takes of recording her signature song, Ma Rainey’s “Black Bottom.”
“White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.“
Everybody here absorbs the music in August Wilson’s ear, the poetry of the lines and the history and psychology he touches on through them.
Davis may have to lip-sync the songs, and the play’s darkest turn still feels abrupt, if dramatically defensible. But “Ma Rainey” honors Wilson and plays in this year of strife and division like THE African American Blues, reminding us of the origins of the musical genre, the singers and players who embodied it and the suffering of “how it got there.”
MPA Rating: R, sex, fisticuffs, profanity
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Coleman Domingo, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown, Jonathan Coyne and Glynn Turman
Credits: Directed by George C. Wolfe, script by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on the play by August Wilson. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:34