Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Here’s a noble enterprise, a classic of the African American canon in August Wilson’s play, respectfully and faithfully put on the big screen for ever and garlanded by some defining performances.

Denzel Washington, who starred in the recent adaptation of Wilson’s Fences, produces here and his co-star Viola Davis takes centre stage as Ma Rainey, the Blues singer in Chicago to record an album with her band. One of these members is Chadwick Boseman, the young trumpeter Levee, who has his own ideas on how to play the blues. Ma wants it her way, or no way. Like her trusty band leader Cutler says every take: One, two, you know what to do…

Boseman is great to watch in his final screen performance, all bared teeth and bruised soul and shiny yellow shoes, a live wire act that might be the definitive reading of this great black part. Davis is a heavy weight Ma, all sweaty and diva-like, flaunting her fame and her sexuality and taking on the avaricious record producers who would exploit yet another black act for their own gain.

I can’t deny there’s a theatricality to this – much of it takes place in a couple of rooms – but that’s the point, to put Wilson’s play up there for all to see and they’ve made a must-see job of it –  a wonderful, classic play that very much needed committing to film, this version is beautifully done, conducted with style, and graced with note-perfect performances. 

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