Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2020. Netflix. Screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on the play by August Wilson. Cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler. Produced by Todd Black, Denzel Washington, Dany Wolf. Music by Branford Marsalis. Production Design by Mark Ricker. Costume Design by Ann Roth. Film Editing by Andrew Mondshein. Boston Film Critics 2020. Gotham Awards 2020. National Society of Film Critics Awards 2020. North Carolina Film Critics Awards 2020.
If Denzel Washington and Viola Davis have the intention of bringing every August Wilson play to the big screen, they couldn’t possibly do audiences a greater kindness; Wilson’s rich, poetic dialogue, contemplative and searing and wholly theatrical, is the reason that this film and Fences feel like stage plays that have been transferred directly to the big screen, but, and I cannot repeat this often enough, when the play is this good, that’s an asset and not a liability. The action takes place at a recording studio in 1927, on an afternoon when Ma Rainey (Davis), one of the first successful recording artists of the blues, is due to appear with her band to record what promises to be the next in a series of highly successful records that have made her a celebrated and wealthy artist. Her band rehearses in an antechamber where their conflicting personalities have them hashing out the tensions that Wilson frequently returns to in his work, the limits placed on the lives of ambitious, disciplined black men by a racist society determined to keep them from succeeding, their woes running parallel to their own self-destructive tendencies and infighting. The music that white audiences enjoy is the result of inspiration, perspiration and devastation, making music is where things get harmonious with these characters while the rest of the time it’s a struggle to connect. Trumpet player Levee’s desire for the spotlight threatens Ma’s dominance of the group, while his ideas for adapting her music to a livelier, more popular style puts him at odds with his more traditional fellow players. When the singer arrives, she takes over the building, refusing to be pushed around by the frugal studio manager or her own anxious agent: she doesn’t care that they’re on a schedule and time is money, her nephew will perform the opening number of “Black Bottom” and they’ll take as many takes as the stammering young man needs to get it right, they’ll record the songs in the order that she chooses, and she won’t begin without the Coca-Cola that she was promised. Loud, tough and brash, Ma is a cypher who is hard to figure out, never revealing herself in the deeply biographical way that the other men do but wholly self aware and unapologetic about her determination not to be treated like she should be grateful for the opportunity to give the people what they want. The listeners of her music, as she says, hear the sound come out but don’t know where it comes from, while to the white businessmen who control her career, she is a voice to be exploited and she won’t let it happen without insisting on things being done exactly her way. Her conflict with Levee (Chadwick Boseman), however, threatens the whole operation when he begins not only moving in on her music but also on her pretty young companion that she takes with her everywhere she goes. Davis gives the character the exact rhythm and authority that she needs, and brilliantly plays the character’s hard-edges as being earned the hard way, this is not a woman puffing up her feathers to hide a soft interior. No praises that could be heaped on the star for playing this character so effectively will ever be undeserved, but it’s incomprehensible why her lip-synching (to vocals supplied by soul singer Maxayn Lewis) is as bad as her acting is good and, what is more awkward to reconcile, it’s obvious that she’s padded and made up to look like someone very different from her real self. She sticks out from the other performances that feel like they have been brought to life directly from the past, and one wonders if the role would have been more effective if it was played by someone more like the real woman’s bearing and without the distraction of us being dazzled by her technically impressive transformation (particularly since, as Wilson is far more interested in investigating mens’ psyche, her character threatens to be the film’s symbolic background, not a full, three-dimensional person). The late Boseman, whose performances in his most famous roles have dampened his charisma, shows a previously unseen pizzazz as the man whose ideas about life and art aren’t necessarily wrong but put him at odds with men of an older generation, and whose rush to make things happen sees him behaving foolishly; the performance is both a triumph, for how good he is, and a tragedy for the fact that its like will never be seen again, and he emerges the trues star of the piece and the most affecting character.