PLOT In 1927, a blues legend travels to Chicago to record one of her greatest songs.
CAST Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Jeremy Shamos
RATED R (language; brief sexuality and violence)
WHERE In theaters; on Netflix Dec. 18
BOTTOM LINE Rainey's story goes mostly untold, but Boseman is wonderful.
Even in the no-holds-barred world of early blues music, Ma Rainey cut a bold figure. A Black woman with a suggestively moaning voice, she seemed proud of both her imposing girth and her queer sexuality. Nicknamed the Mother of the Blues, Rainey was one of the first such singers ever recorded and went on to release nearly 100 songs between 1923 and 1928. She retired and established three theaters in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, which she ran until she died in 1939, at the age of 53.
"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" could have cast Rainey as a pioneer in any number of ways: Black pop star, female entrepreneur, gay role model. Based on August Wilson’s 1984 Broadway play, the film instead casts her as the last of a dying musical breed — a traditionalist under siege by snazzy big band leaders like Duke Ellington. That angle doesn’t seem like the most relevant thing about this remarkable woman; what’s more, the film, which takes place during a fictional Chicago recording session in 1927, spends less time with Rainey than with her three backing musicians, who are all male and all fictional.
Luckily for director George C. Wolfe, one of the musicians, Levee, is played by Chadwick Boseman, the princely actor who died at 43 of colon cancer earlier this year. After a career spent playing Black icons (from baseball hero Jackie Robinson in "42" to a Marvel superhero in "Black Panther"), Boseman seems to leap at the chance to play a mere mortal. Levee, a talented trumpeter whose ambition and skin color are at odds, is a man on the brink — of fame, or of violence — and Boseman plays him with combustible intensity. It’s a fine, final performance from the late actor and one of this film’s saving graces.
The other is Viola Davis as the ur-blueswoman Rainey. Davis plays her as demanding, arrogant and mercurial — all believable qualities in a Black female recording star in the Jim Crow era. (Her toadying white manager, Irvin, is played by Jeremy Shamos.) Riding in the back of her chauffeured car, eyes straight ahead, Rainey looks as menacing as any dictator — and just as wary of losing her power. There’s a coldness in her eyes but, thanks to Davis, we can tell the effort costs her. Davis also deserves credit for her down-and-dirty singing, which provides a break from the sometimes too-polished score by Branford Marsalis.
Blunting the impact of "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" are its many meandering conversations between trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and the volatile Levee. A sexual plaything named Dussie Mae, played by Taylour Paige, injects a bit of danger into the story by bouncing between Ma and Levee, but she feels like a contrivance and a cliche. Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s script retains Wilson’s vernacular prose, but much of this material seems tangential to Rainey’s music. While the fictional characters gather to rehearse and pontificate, there’s a real person waiting for her turn at a microphone.