Sunday, January 10, 2021

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Movie Name:
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Year of Release: 2020
Director: George C. Wolfe
Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Dusan Brown, Joshua Harto
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer

Synopsis and Review:
Actor, writer, producer & director George C. Wolfe is back, following his TV film "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and the little seen "You're not You". This time around he adapts a play written by August Wilson (who also wrote "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson"). The story takes place in 1927 in Chicago, during an afternoon, where a series of musicians are waiting for Ma Rainey to come in so they can play and make a record. She arrives late, with her girlfriend and her nephew. One of the members of the band, Levee Green has his own ambitions, and has been composing music which he hopes the producer of Ma's record will buy, and allow him to move to another level. He also lusts after Ma's girlfriend, and as the recording is met with a series of challenges, he finally gets his chance to court her. As Ma confesses her own ambitions and frustrations, the recording finally gets done, not without some additional friction, upon which she also resolves to fire Levee. As he sees his plans unravel and collapse, he lashes out at the band members. 
"Ma Raine's Black Bottom" while based on the play by August Wilson, is in itself based on the life of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers, and one of the first generation of blues singers to record. The story of the film unfolds during a single afternoon, and focuses solely on the interactions between the different characters of the band, and Ma's entourage. It's a film that for all its context and historical relevance, fails to provide much in terms of dimension to who and what drives Ma's life. We get a glimpse into her longing to control her own art, and her challenges with race inequality throughout her life, but we never know much about her beyond that. Levee on the other hand, provides this lengthy monologue on his family's life, which in turn informs who he is and how he behaves, but the film and the director itself, while attempting to be emotionally bare and confessional, ends up showcasing its stage-driven nature. This aspect of the film is actually what removes me personally most from it: there's a theatrical nature to it, that makes this feel more like a polished stage performance, more so than an actual film. The film isn't raw enough to be almost documentary, raw and exposed, and it doesn't soar enough to illustrate the blues, the impact and poetry of music, or for that matter, what propels these characters to live in this particular art universe. It features a great ensemble of performers, with Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman leading a great group of actors, but ultimately as a film, it just doesn't go beyond the illustrative. A missed opportunity.