There is something about August Wilson's words that brings the best out in Viola Davis. The playwright's “Fences” got Davis an Oscar and cemented her as one of the most extraordinary talents in the film industry.
Maybe it's because Wilson can write flawed characters humanizing them without any judgment. And maybe that’s why his words also pull out an all-time performance from late South Carolina native Chadwick Boseman in “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,” his last film role, filmed before he died earlier this year following a private battle with cancer.
We don't know much of the real-life blues singer Ma Rainey, with little beyond a few pictures of her smiling, sporting a gold grill and eyes that indicate she's familiar with the blues, and a few scant recordings that indicate the same surviving to this day.
Davis, wearing a fat suit, a mouth full of gold fronts, black eyeshadow and a flashy girlfriend, embodies the role. You've never seen Davis like this before. Ma is famous for her music and knows that owners of a record label only want to record her songs to profit from her pain, not to do anything to help her heal it.
Adapting the Wilson play of the same name, the movie is set in 1927. The film has a live stage feel, with most of the scenes taking place in the recording studio. As the band warms up to perform four songs for Ma, the film introduces you to a slick shit-talking horn player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), full of ideas on how to play the songs. He has ambitions out of this world, full of confidence to the point that he shows up late to the recording session because he was buying a new pair of bright gold shoes.
We find out that the spirit is a front, as Boseman gives a whirlwind performance that convincingly encompasses every emotion a Black man can experience in America.
When Levee is teased by his bandmates for being too docile with the white producers, Boseman gives a monologue about the history of his character’s experience “dealing with the white man.” The story is filled with horrors that include his mother being sexually assaulted by a group of men while his father was away. The room falls silent, as Boseman, tears falling from his eyes, becomes an embodiment of Black pain.
Ma has her own internal struggles. Not only is she dealing with the white studio owners trying to profit from her talents, but also the age gap between her and the young horn player. She wants to sing the songs the way she wants to, and Levee informs her that it's outdated, exacerbating one of her fears as a performer: Getting old.
Ma uses small victories to flex power. She insists that her stammering nephew give an introduction before one of the records (recording the song live, without the modern technology to edit it out). She holds up the recording of a song until she gets a cold Coke.
As she gulps down the entire bottle of cola in one long swig, Davis shades in the pain behind the defiance, her expressive face telling the story beyond the moment, as she has done so often before in roles from “Fences” to “Doubt.”
By the film's end, both Levee and Ma seem to be prisoners of their art. Using their ambitions and talents to get out of their plights, they ultimately get exploited in the process. A glaring example by the film's end highlights the gentrification intrinsic to musical history that’s apropos today.
The film doesn't teach you much about Ma Rainey, which might prove disappointing for those hoping for a more traditional biopic. It’s a character study about the Black creative psyche, powered by performances from Davis and Boseman that would, on their own, be worth the price of admission — a Netflix subscription in this case.