January 4, 2021 – The big screen adaptation of August Wilson's play about legendary blues singer Ma Rainey is a deep exploration of the black experience in America and that uniquely American music, the blues.
The movie is set in Chicago in 1927 during a recording session, although there is a flashback scene from an earlier Ma Rainey performance that comes first. Ma Rainey is known as the Mother of the Blues. She said she coined the very name of the music that she popularized in some 100 recordings beginning in 1923.
Although this film takes place, for the most part, in just two rooms, the recording studio, and a small rehearsal room, it takes a long time to get to the actual recording of the songs, partly because Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis of “Widows”) shows up late. After she shows up, she demands a Coca-Cola, which takes time to track down because of segregation problems.
Much of the drama takes place in the rehearsal room where a talented young trumpet player, Levee (played by the late Chadwick Boseman of “Black Panther”) argues that his own arrangements of Rainey's songs should be used instead of the traditional arrangements. He primarily butts heads with the band leader, Cutler (Colman Domingo of “If Beale Street Could Talk”).
Cutler and Levee get into a fight when Cutler objects to Levee's religious blasphemy. Levee pulls a knife during the fight. Levee tells a harrowing story about stopping a group of white men intent on raping his mother, and his father later being lynched when he sought vengeance on those men.
In a number of stories, mostly in the rehearsal room, the musicians tell a number of stories about discrimination, harassment and lynching at the hands of white men. This is all related to music by Ma Rainey herself later in the film.
Ma Rainey says, “White folk don't understand about the blues. They hear it coming out but they don't know how it got there. They don't understand that that's life's way of talking. You don't sing to feel better. You sing because that's a way of understanding life. The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain't alone. There's something else in the world. Something's been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues.”
Indeed, this whole film is about the blues and how that music describes life for these black musicians including Ma Rainey herself. She confides in Cutler that if her records didn't make a lot of money, she would get no respect at all from the white record producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne of “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”).
Because she does make a lot of money for the company, Rainey does make a lot of demands, and gets what she asks for. She also refuses to compromise on her music, despite pressure to change her music to make it more fashionable.
In the rehearsal room, trouble is brewing between Levee, whose hopes of getting his own record deal are dashed by Sturdyvant, and the wise old piano player, Toledo (Glynn Turman of “The Way Back”) who accidentally steps on Levee's brand new shoes. Levee is hurt and angry at Sturdyvant, but blindly lashes out at Toledo instead.
In the end, Levee's music is stolen by Sturdyvant and recorded by a white singer, backed by an all-white band. This is something that has happened thousands of times.
The tragedy caused by the pain and anger of the black experience plays out every day on a small scale, and sometimes on a massive scale. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson is known for his ability to dramatize the black experience, and this adaptation directed by George C. Wolfe and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson maintains that theme.
The late Chadwick Boseman gives a masterful performance in this film along with the great Viola Davis, and the rest of the cast. This is a powerful drama, but it does have some pacing issues. It also suffers from being visually confined to two rooms. The few street scenes are much more evocative of the depicted time and place, and are very well presented.
Viola Davis is obviously lip-synching during all but one of the singing scenes (the exception being the song “Those Dogs are Mine”). Lead vocals on the rest of the songs are performed by Maxayn Lewis, formerly of the Ikettes (Ike and Tina Turner's backup singers). The music is arranged by multi-award-winning Branford Marsalis. A recording of Ma Rainey herself singing “Deep Moaning Blues” is heard over the credits. This is a heartfelt film which lays bare the Black experience in America. It rates a B.
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