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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Viola Davis Brings Blues to Life
by James Colt Harrison

Most people today are probably not familiar with singer Ma Rainey. After all, she was famous nearly 100 years ago, and many of us have not reached that degree of vintage. Rainey was born April 26, 1886 in Georgia and died December 22, 1939 at age 53. Her golden years of singing and recording were in the 1920s and 1930s. Rainey was dubbed “Mother of the Blues” because that was her signature style. She rarely sang any songs that weren’t associated with the style called “blues,” which was a specialty of African-American entertainers. She was the originator and she was the best.

Rainey began singing as early as age 12. She married at 18 to Will “Pa” Rainey, and they toured with an act from around 1904. She was discovered by Paramount Records executives and made her first recording in 1923 titled  “Bad Luck Blues,” followed by “Boll Weavil Blues”. By 1928, she had made more than 100 recordings that seemingly were all good sellers for the label. She made several recordings in 1924 with the famous Louis Armstrong.

In 1982 Black playwright August Wilson wrote the hit Broadway play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” on which the film is based. Starring in the stage version was Oscar® winner Whoopi Goldberg. The story focusses on the events surrounding Rainey’s recording of her famous song “Black Bottom.” It is a fictional account of what may have transpired. It all comes from Wilson’s imagination.

Director George C. Wolfe has transformed Wilson’s original words and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s film script into a tantalizing look at the determined artist who is a no-nonsense, dictatorial, and  somewhat mean-spirited star who wants things done “her” way.

Viola Davis is a magnificent actress and a good choice to play Rainey.  Sewn into a “fat suit,” with hips out to there, the ordinarily gorgeous and slim actress becomes the mature Rainey in appearance. Despite Davis’ black eye makeup by artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera that gives her the appearance of being the recipient of severe blows and rapid-fire pummeling by prize fighter Joe Louis, it actually does give her a distinct appearance that makes the viewer sit up and say “Wha’ happened, poor baby?” And don’t ask about her teeth. She has more chrome than an old Buick and enough gold bonding to rival Fort Knox.  We can blame/credit dental prosthetic artist Gary Archer for that creation. It certainly sets Davis/Rainey apart and probably gives most dentists today a migraine when seeing it.

The film is a fictional account of a recording session of Rainey making a disk of her “Black Bottom” song at the Paramount Recording Studios around 1927. Ma is already a famous star and she knows what she’s doing. Davis gives us a Ma Rainey who is tough and unmovable when it comes to how she wants to sing and record her songs. The record executives want to tear their hair, but they cave in to all her requests, including getting her three cold Coca Cola bottles before she can sing. They cost 5 cents each. Those were the days.

An outstanding appearance by Chadwick Boseman in his last film role is a wonder-making experience. He plays independent horn player and song-writer Levee who is young and up to the minute with the current musical styles. He thinks Ma’s style is old-fashioned and wants to jazz up her recordings. She’ll have none of it, of course, and the two clash. Rainey is not exactly a nice person, and we have sympathy for Boseman’s character and his frustration over trying to “modernize” her sound. Boseman gives a terrifically tortured performance and should be in the running for an Oscar® this season.

Although there are some quick production numbers with dancing girls in the beginning of the film, there is a noticeable lack of production numbers in the rest of the picture. That is a bit disappointing as it would have fleshed out the razzle-dazzle of the era and given us something to whoop about. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing high kicks, skimpy costumes, glittering sequins, and honky-tonk music of the 1920s.

All in all, it’s a good showcase for the bottomless talents of Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. And a nod goes to veteran actor Glynn Turman who turns in a sensitive, loveable performance worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nod for playing band member Toledo.

(Released by Netflix and rated “PG-13” for language, some sexual content and brief violence.)

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