Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Film Review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom


Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Offensive

A few minutes into  Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, I came to realize that this wasn't a movie.  This was a play.

I found out later that this movie is in fact a stage play by August Wilson.  Adapting a play to a movie is actually a tricky business.  Theater is really an actor's medium whereas film is a director's medium.  A movie is primarily told through the decisions and vision of the director.  But on stage, the actor must command the attention of the audience for the entire time and use every technique they can to draw in the audience.  This is one of the reasons that the movie does not work as well.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom takes place almost entirely at a recording studio in 1927 Chicago where Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is recording an album.  Her band is made up of the talented and cocky Levee (Chadwick Boseman), lead musician Cutler (Colman Domingo), common sense piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts).  The day is hot and tensions flare up as delays and conflicts in the group build with dramatic and devastating results.

This is a difficult movie to accurately review without giving spoilers so be warned:  SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE REVIEW.

As I said, theater is an actor's medium and the performances are fantastic.  You can see how an actor would love to be in this movie.  The best of all the performances is Boseman as Levee.  As I wrote in an earlier article, "Boseman's performance as Levee is utterly fantastic.  His character has a heart that is a black hole of self-centeredness that he covers with swagger.  But when the damn breaks, Boseman pushes Levee to emotional depths that are so incredibly difficult to perform well without going over the edge.  Leevee is charming, funny, scary, detestable, and sympathetic, sometimes all at the same time.  And Boseman plays those contradictions wonderfully.

Normally I don't like to pull real life into the dramatic experience, but while I was watching, I could not help think about how Boseman was dying while he was making this film and he knew it.  The dramatic weight loss alone in him is shocking.  I could not help but think about how this actor's own mortality was weighing on him and yet he either puts that away or uses that experience to fuel his best performance in a career and life ended too soon."

Boseman is not alone in bringing his performance to a higher level.  Particulalry good is Turnman.  As I wrote in an earlier post, "One of the things I respect from an actor is when they are able to "Do nothing effectively."  I teach my students that "acting is reacting."  To be a truly effective actor, you have to exist as a real person in the moment.  Turman actually hooked me with a single reaction shot.  Throughout the movie, Turman is the voice of reason and conscience.  He dispenses common sense wisdom and he does so with the weariness of a man who has earned this wisdom through a life of bad choices.  You can see his frustration as he tries to impart this wisdom to Leevee.  Then after some gentle ribbing, Levee bursts into a devastating monologue about the family tragedy that defined him.  During that monologue it cut to Turman's character as he listened.  His eyes were red and pained, his face a mask of horror and sympathy.  In those brief seconds, Thurman not only conveyed everything his character was feeling and the depths of sympathy he had, but he gave Boseman's character an added emotional boost that pushed the emotional thermometer even higher.  And that is what a great supporting actor does."

Davis, as always is great.  Her Ma Rainey is a bold bully, who kicks up a big deal to get her way even over something as trivial as a Coca-Cola.  But you can understand why there is no agreeableness in her.  The moment she becomes at all conciliatory, there are people surrounding her ready to take advantage of her talent and success.  She is constantly on the attack as a defense.  Davis gives her a fury that is seething beneath every look.

So if the performances are so good, why doesn't the movie work?

The first reason is that director George C. Wolfe forgets he's making a movie.  What I mean by that is that the movie is blocked and shot in a way that feels like a stage play.  This works with something like Hamilton, but not here.  The script also needed to be edited down more to keep things moving at a clip.  The monologues are long and repetitive and indulgent.  Often in film, less is more when it comes to dialogue.

The second is that the movie has a very ugly, blasphemous overtone.  As I wrote in an earlier post, "Some movies this year had small moments of blasphemy like An American Pickle and Palm Springs.  But Ma Rainey's Black Bottom gave one of its most pivotal scenes to a character who spent it uttering the most horrible blasphemies against God.  Now, there is more nuance going on in this play than what you find in most simplistic anti-Christian scripts.  I think that it is possible that you could make an argument that this movie is not anti-Christian based on how this horrid character ends up.  I make a similar case for the movie The Devil's Advocate."

This can be seen particularly in the character of Levee.   In one scene, he calls out God directly, shouting terrible things to Him, threatening Him, insulting Him.  These moments are so indulgent and linger so long that they border on disgusting.

To be fair, Levee is an evil person.  This is made clear by the end of the play.  He thinks his musical talent will bring him incredible worldly success.  When his dreams are dashed, he lashes out at Toledo for stepping on his new shoes and proceeds to stab him in the back.  While Toledo is dying, he tries to justify his action because of Toledo's imagined offense.  Levee's heart is a black hole of narcissism where he justifies his wrath in psychotic ways.  Regardless, his blasphemy makes the movie difficult to watch.

If you are interested in great performances, you could do worse than this movie.  Just don't expect to enjoy it.

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