Blues music sets a sensuous tone and is obviously important, largely in the recording studio scenes, but not as much as you might expect. (Davis doesn’t do her own singing except for a brief moment when Ma sings to Dussie Mae.) Branford Marsalis’s soundtrack blends seamlessly with Ma’s own songs. But Wilson’s words are always the point.
Boseman does justice to those words and more. His performance displays a strong physicality from the start. Levee slides, swaggers and dances around the rehearsal room, proud of his new shoes, bragging about writing his own music and starting his own band. Beneath his smile, he has demons close to the surface. When the other band members accuse him of pandering to the white owner of the studio, he launches into the film’s central monologue. Over five minutes of screen time, Boseman goes from pained to angry and back again as he tells the harrowing story of an event he witnessed as a child and the lessons he learned from his father’s vengeance on the white men behind it. Wolfe varies camera angles and includes reaction shots, but the scene remains unfussy as the words spill out of Levee. A later monologue is even more explosive, as Levee rages at God, pointing a knife toward the heavens and shouting, “Did you turn your back on me?” It’s easy to see this as an Oscar-bait scene, which it probably is, but Boseman deserves the awards buzz. While his delivery is fiery, it is not histrionic. It is piercing.
The characters’ differences go beyond music. In one argument, Levee says he’s not willing to accept a bone thrown at him by white men, sneering at Toledo, who sees fighting racism as an impossible battle to win. Verbal battles lead to a shocking end that in hindsight also seems like an inevitable tragedy.
Denzel Washington is one of the film’s producers, authorised by the Wilson estate to bring the 10 plays in his Century Cycle to the screen. The first was Fences (2017), which Washington directed and starred in, and which won Davis the supporting actress Oscar. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom confirms that Wilson’s work is in the best of hands.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is released on Netflix on 18 December
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