MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM – Review by Susan Wloszczyna

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At the start of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a grabber opening sequence leads us through the woods at night and into a tent where we witness a crowd getting down with the “Mother of the Blues,” her face and body glistening with sweat and her eyes rimmed with black kohl and silver dental work as actress Viola Davis inhabits the fierce soul diva’s bewitching steamy presence.

We also get to witness a preview of what is to come in the form of the late Chadwick Boseman’s final film role. The actor was best known for such heroic film roles including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, baseball great Jackie Robinson and as T’Challa in Black Panther. So it’s a special kick to see him as the chatty and ambitious jazz trumpeter Levee (with Bradford Marsalis filling in on horn duty), who is cocky as they come and disrespectful to the other older musicians in the band.

If Levee with his cagey grin wants to do a solo on stage, he damn well will proceed to do so. He even has the nerve to make time with Rainey’s young girlfriend. But his cockiness is somewhat earned as he shows off his gifts for arrangements and writing more people-pleasing dance tunes. His ultimate plan is to ingratiate himself with his boss lady’s nervous white manager and a racist record executive in order to pursue a solo career.

Yes, George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play grows more theatrical and stagey after that as the film primarily takes place in the cramped quarters of a rehearsal room in 1927 Chicago where Levee and three other players await their queen.

The men share stories and argue about the racist treatment of Black artists past and present before they will proceed to the studio where Rainey will record her album. After several delays, including a car incident, technical glitches, a demand for bottles of Coca Cola for Rainey to eagerly gulp down and the superstar’s nephew who must conquer his stutter when reciting the opening intro to the song Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. At that point, it’s all about the lady who sings the blues. There’s a snap, a crackle and a pop in the air and a momentous sense that stellar art is being created by this big-chested belter who holds sway over the white men who need to do her bidding.

As for the angry and naïve Levee, he’d rather obsess over a scratch mark on his new yellow shoes than show respect to his elders playing beside him. As for Rainey, she knows her voice is her sword and shield, and she wields them when needed. Meanwhile, Levee seems destined to be his own worst enemy at the end of the story, as tragedy strikes and his career plans fall apart.

Davis more than deserves her first lead actress Oscar nomination for her knock-out performance. But it is Bosman’s nervy and brave performance that will linger on your mind. It’s nearly assured his legacy will be honored with a posthumous lead actor spot on ballot. Bless the makers of this showbiz tale, including Denzel Washington — who is one of the producers and was a mentor to Bosman — for such a spectacular showcase of this actor’s artistry and talent.

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Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna

In her nearly 30 years at USA Today, Susan Wloszczyna interviewed everyone from Vincent Price and Shirley Temple to Julia Roberts and Will Smith. Her coverage specialties include animation, musicals, comedies and any film starring Hayley Mills, Sandy Dennis or hobbits. Her crowning career achievements so far, besides having Terence Stamp place his bare feet in her lap during an interview for The Limey, is convincing the paper to send her to New Zealand twice for set visits, once for The Return of the King and the other for The Chronicles of Narnia and King Kong, and getting to be a zombie extra and interview George Romero in makeup on the set for Land of the Dead. Though not impressive enough for Pulitzer consideration, she also can be blamed for coining the moniker "Frat Pack," often used to describe the comedy clique that includes Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Her positions have included Life section copy desk chief for four years and a film reviewer for 12 years. She is currently a contributor for the online awards site Gold Derby and is an Oscar expert for RogerEbert.com. Previously, she has been a freelance film reporter and critic, contributing regularly to RogerEbert.com, MPAA’s The Credits, the Washington Post, AARP The Magazine online and Indiewire as well as being a book reviewer for The Buffalo News. She previously worked as a feature editor at the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A Buffalo native, she earned her bachelor's degree in English at Canisius College and a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.