Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

 

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Themes of race and religion are filtered through a hot, sweaty recording session 

with the Mother of the Blues in 1927 Chicago.

   
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom 

Viola Davis

 

First things first: the black bottom is a dance that took its name from Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘Black Bottom Stomp’. This, in turn, derived its moniker from the Black Bottom neighbourhood of Detroit. So, no sniggering then. And Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the name of the 1982 play by August Wilson, as part of the playwright’s Pittsburgh Cycle. Of those ten plays, Fences was another, which was brought to the screen just four years ago, with Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in the leads and Denzel behind the camera. Here, the latter takes on producing duties and has cast Davis as the formidable Ma Rainey, one of the very first blues singers whose voice was preserved on recorded disc. She became known as the Mother of the Blues and Bessie Smith was a pupil (and a lover, according to some reports). She was a big woman and flaunted her new-found wealth with a get-up of jewels that she wore in her ears and her teeth, round her neck, on her hands, and with a tiara to top it all off. She certainly knew the value of her voice – and her appeal. Here, Denzel has recruited George C. Wolfe to helm, a director with two Tony awards on his CV.

 

By the play’s very nature – covering one long recording session on a hot summer’s day in Chicago – Wolfe’s adaptation remains a theatrical, stagey experience. But with such powerhouses as Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman on board, it’s a riveting watch. Looking painfully thin from his advanced colon cancer, Boseman nevertheless gives the trumpet player Levee Green his all. Levee’s monologue on the rape of his mother by “eight or nine mans” is a genuine showstopper. “She’s standing there frying that chicken,” he recalls, with gut-wrenching pain, “when them mans come and took a hold of her just like you take hold of a mule and make it do what you want.” In the even showier role of Ma Rainey, Viola Davis is truly transformed: a formidable, petite giantess with gold teeth and a heaving cleavage. A law unto herself, she brooks no messin’ from nobody, be they male or white. She will have her way. The hum of Oscar recognition is already taking wing, Davis locking horns with Andra Day as another legend of the blues in Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Described by jazz historians as “a kindly and much loved employer,” Ma Rainey is painted in starker colours by August Wilson, who offers us a redoubtable diva who won’t sing a note until she’s been supplied with three bottles of Coca Cola. You wouldn’t want to mess with this version of Ma Rainey, heaving bosom, bottom and all. It’s a barnstorming turn from Ms Davis, who is all but unrecognisable. The music, too, is a tantalising pleasure.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown, Joshua Harto, Quinn VanAntwerp.

 

Dir George C. Wolfe, Pro Denzel Washington, Todd Black and Dany Wolf, Screenplay Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Ph Tobias Schliessler, Pro Des Mark Ricker, Ed Andrew Mondshein, Music Branford Marsalis, Costumes Ann Roth, Sound Paul Urmson.

 

Escape Artists/Mundy Lane Entertainment-Netflix.

94 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 18 December 2020. Available on Netfix. Cert. 15.