A-one, a-two, a-you know what to do,” chants Cutler (Colman Domingo), bandleader/trombone player, as Ma Rainey’s four-piece band rehearses at a Chicago recording studio in the sweltering summer of 1927.
Known as the “Mother of the Blues,” hip-swaying, sweat-slicked Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) bristles when her opportunistic manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and record producer Sturdyvant (Jonathan Coyne) don’t show the diva proper respect.
“They don’t care nothing about me,” she declares. “All they want is my voice. They going to treat me the way I want to be treated.”
Then there’s ambitious Levee (Chadwick Boseman), the hotshot trumpeter who has his own modern interpretation of Ma’s old-fashioned songs and plans to front his own band. He’s arrogant, headstrong and prone to making self-destructive decisions – like seducing Ma’s flirtatious girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige).
Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) died of colon cancer last year at the age of 43 – and he seems destined for an Oscar nomination for his electrifying performance; in the past, Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) and Peter Finch (Network) won posthumous Oscars. Denzel Washington, who produced this film, was Boseman’s mentor since his college years.
In addition, indomitable and almost unrecognizable Viola Davis seems fast-tracked to another Academy Award nomination as Ma Rainey, partially lip-synching Maxayn Lewis’ belting voice.
Based on August Wilson’s thinly-plotted 1984 play, first produced at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, it’s dutifully adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and astutely directed by George C. Wolfe, who vividly depicts how dismissively Black musicians were treated back then and how some “existed in defiance of their time.”
Best known on the Georgia tent circuit, Ma Rainey was a legendary cultural icon, and she’s the only LGBTQ character in Wilson’s 10-play chronicle of the African-American experience during the 20th century.
Wolfe’s well-timed production is lavish – including Tobias Schliessler’s stunning cinematography, Branford Marsalis’ score and Ann Roth’s period costumes.
On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an empowering 8, debuting on Netflix on Dec. 18th