“During a recording session, tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable ‘Mother of the Blues.'” -IMDB
Before you go into this movie, you have to prepare yourself for the devastation that is seeing Chadwick Boseman in one of his last roles. It’s a role that he gives so much to and it is a role with such depth and complexity, that you can’t help but feel an aching in your heart every time he’s on screen. But there is also joy in seeing his performance and all of the skills he was able to display in this film. The entire cast, spearheaded by Boseman and the incomparable Viola Davis, are at their best in a film that forces you to focus on each actor’s performance before all else. Let me clarify…
Although it’s not true 100% of the time, I would say that a majority of films adapted from plays, films which also take the time to cast outstanding stage actors, make for some of the best movies of our time. Why? Because if you’re used to performing twice a day almost every day of the week, without room for mistakes, then doing a film with multiple takes is going to be somewhat of a walk in the park. Viola Davis, for instance, has shown time and again (and again and again) that her work on stage has made her one of the most talented and versatile actors of our time and this performance is no exception.
Another element that often turns great plays into great films is that their story unfolds within a narrow place and time. In the case of Ma Rainey, the story takes place over a single day and in a single recording studio. Ma Rainey, her band, and white studio executives interact with one another under great stress and with little opportunity to leave their situation. This causes tensions to rise and characters to reveal more of their backgrounds, traumatic pasts, and private traits to the audience. We learn why some of these characters turn to god while others turn away, why some turn to silence while others turn to brashness, and why some turn to obstinate self-reliance while others try to bring others along in their success. We also learn why, under such racist, tyrannical conditions, individuals are pushed a breaking point and turn against not the individuals who hurt and betray them, but against those who are least to blame. And how those in a position of privilege continue, unmoved, to disregard the plights of others.
Something I think should also be noted is that this film is a timely and educative study in how often Black performers have been labeled as “difficult,” when they are under despicably restrictive record label contracts. Prince, Jay-Z, The Game and many others have spoken to this point, and this shows film shows that record labels have been engaging int hese tactic since the very beginning.
Honestly, I’ve been done with the Oscars for quite awhile (although I appreciate a few more recent nominations and wins), but I will still be truly outraged if Davis and Boseman’s performances do not garner them nominations.
Rating: 9 out of 10 Claire Bears
If you like this movie, you should also see: Fences, Devil at the Crossroads
With: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman
Directed By: George C. Wolfe