Based on August Wilson’s stage play, this movie was not only about a tumultuous afternoon recording session back in 1927 Chicago, but it marked the final screen appearance of Chadwick Boseman, who passed away earlier this year.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, aka the “Mother of the Blues” was one of the first African-American blues singers to record, even though her blues singing competition, Bessie Smith (“The Empress of the Blues”), was better known. This movie revolves around one hot and sweaty afternoon at a recording studio in Chicago where Ma Rainey (a nearly unrecognizable Viola Davis) is going to make her first record, thanks to her white manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos). But things ain’t going to schedule as she’s an hour late, because the studio manager, Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) has failed to realize he’s on Ma’s time.
While she’s on her way, the band tries to rehearse, but it’s not going well. It looks like their ambitious trumpet player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman) has set his sights on leaving the band and making a name for himself, despite the giggles and chides from his band mates, double bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), old man pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), and sage advice giver & trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo). As they wait for Ma, they talk about their lives, but no more than Levee, who delivers a devastating, heart-wrenching five-minute monologue about growing up.
Ma finally shows up with her stuttering nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and sexy girl-toy, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who secretly has the hots for Levee, but the recording still doesn’t happen. Ma, all flamboyant, painted eyes, fearless, and grumpy knows what she wants, and what she wants is a damn Coca-Cola! Her ferocious demands continue in the hot, stifling day with nerves frayed, tensions being strained, and Ma singing her heart out. But even after the record is done and Ma is satisfied, the movie shifts into third gear with a traumatic and shocking conclusion.
Adapted from August Wilson’s stage play by first-time screenwriter actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, you really couldn’t go wrong transferring the stage play into a film, as seen with Wilson’s 2016 Fences, which racked up SO many awards it was jaw-dropping. Wilson’s dialogue, like Aaron Sorkin’s, is a symphony of words that plays out like music. The lengthy scene in the claustrophobic locker room is such an example: four men, freely slinging jibes and at each other in a carefree manner, eventually leading to darker truths being revealed is remarkable. Be forewarned, the N-word is used quite a bit!
And what better person to film a stage play brought to the silver screen (okay, Netflix) than a theater guy? NYC theater director & producer George C. Wolfe is behind the camera, although he isn’t a stranger there (Lackawanna Blues, Nights in Rodanthe). Simple, clean, and no-fuss, Wolfe is a basic point-and-shoot director, but check out the opening few minutes, which is a dazzling array of cinema, unlike the simplicity of the rest of the film. But enough about the brilliant screenplay and the excellent direction, the real reason you came to see this movie is the acting. And one man.
Yes, it’s called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Viola Davis does give a stunning performance that you’ve never seen before, but this movie belongs to the late, great Chadwick Boseman. The film actually centers more around Levee than Ma, and it’s here that Boseman excels and shines, giving a farewell showing that is both heart-breaking and gut-punching at the same time. A private man, Boseman never told the cast he was going for radiation treatments for his painful colon cancer while filming. You can see it on camera; his intensity, his commitment to his craft, and giving it all for the camera. It’s an Oscar-winning role if ever I’ve seen one. Mr. Boseman, you are sorely missed!
**Streaming exclusively on Netflix
With most bio-pic’s about singers or bands (Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Great Balls of Fire) almost all their stories start at one focal point in their lives and then backtrack with multiple flashbacks or flash-forwards. This one is that rarity that doesn’t quite fit that mold. Almost.
We begin the story of the amazing singer/songwriter Ray Charles Robinson (Jamie Foxx) as he’s a young blind man in his 20’s catching a bus to Seattle,Washington to show his extraordinary piano skills to a small nightclub owner. He’s so good, he soon joins a small band and the club’s owner (Denise Dowse) begins to exploit Ray, demanding sexual favors and controlling his money and career. After discovering that he is being lied to and stolen from, Ray quits and joins a jazz band as their piano man. But he still gets treated like dirt, even getting hooked on heroin in the process.
In all his travels, Ray occasionally flashbacks to his life as a child (C.J. Sanders) along with his little brother, George, and their dirt poor, but fiercely independent single mother, Aretha (Sharon Warren). Ray is haunted by the accidental drowning of George that happened right in front of him, and his by own blindness that claimed him at age seven. Fortunately, his mother taught him how to cope with his disability. Meanwhile, Ray meets Atlantic Records execs Ahmet Ertegun (Curtis Armstrong) and Jerry Wexler (Richard Schiff) who sign Ray to a lucrative record deal after Ray’s song, The Mess Around, is a huge hit.
From there, his career takes off. While concert promoter Milt Shaw (David Krumholtz) is getting him major bookings, Ray meets lovely Della Bea (Kerry Washington) and falls in love with her. But after the two get married, Della (and others) are not happy that Ray is mixing gospel with soul music. Wanting more, Ray hires back-up singer Mary Anne Fisher (Aunjanue Ellis) who instantly wants Ray for her own. And Della will never know since Ray’s on the road so much!
However, once Ray hires a trio of girls (The Raylettes) for more vocals, Ray immediately falls for singer Margie (Regina King), and the two begin an intense affair, which leads to not only her pregnancy, but her demanding Ray to leave Della for her. Years pass with major hit songs, Ray’s dependency on heroin growing, a drug bust in Canada, Ray leaving Atlantic Records for ABC Records, and Ray refusing to play at a segregated concert in Georgia. He finally goes to rehab to kick his heroin habit after learning that Margie died from a drug overdose.
At a lengthy 2hrs and 23 mins you don’t get bored for a minute as Jamie Foxx is so damn good as Ray Charles, it’s astonishing to watch him perform. Although he does play the piano and sing, he lip-syncs so believably that you’d swear that was really him singing the songs. Foxx, BTW, won a record FIVE major acting awards (Academy, Bafta, Golden Globe, Critics, and SAG), a rarity to be sure. And you can see why. But his performance is second only to the crack direction of Taylor Hackford (Against All Odds, An Officer and a Gentleman), a man who knows a lot about drama and how to film it.
Even more astonishing is James L. White’s wonderful script, which (at the time) was his one and only screenplay. . . ever! For a newbie, the man wrote a bio-pic that didn’t fall into the same ‘ol, same ‘ol pitfalls and tropes you see with other bio-pic’s. Sadly, he passed away in 2015, but he left behind a second screenplay, Empress of the Blues, a bio-pic about blues singer Bessie Smith which, happily, is going to be made. Oh, and with other bio-pic’s, the subject of the biography is usually deceased, but with this movie (back in 2004) Ray Charles only had a few objections to his “life story”. And if you’re a Ray Charles fan, you’re in a for a treat as many of his songs are not only played, but shown in their evolution.