Viola Davis is a major force in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’ She plays Ma Rainey, the legendary Blues singer who just wants respect. She says all they want is her voice so they (white people) can make money off it, so she needs to raise her (metaphorical) voice so she can be hear – she demands some Coca Cola, she wants her nephew to introduce her in the record, she wants to sing the songs her way – using the arrangements she is accustomed to – never mind of the trend is towards a sound where people can move with. Davis bulldozes through all of Ma Rainey effortlessly – you understand her pain, her vulnerability (she has a girlfriend and that’s also fine) and you respect her demands. (I mean, in modern times, these are just the tip of someone’s rider) The performance is such a presence I wished there were more of her – the characters appear twenty minutes into the film.
George C Wolfe has magnificently opened up August Wilson’s play, which is a day in a recording studio. He starts with the musicians – the regulars, and the young upstart, Levee (played by Chadwick Boseman) who tries to push the boundaries of what he can get away with – personally and musically. Boseman is fantastic, too. (I never saw ‘Black Panther’) and I won’t be surprised if he gets nominated for his performance here. I also appreciated the fact that the film is a robust 90 minutes, and not a single frame can be thrown away. He has made the play very cinematic, and it never felt stagey.