Two fantastic performers and a great cast bring August Wilson’s play to life.
Welcome to Chicago in the Summer of 1927. Legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is set to do a recording of her famous song “Black Bottom.” Awaiting her arrival is her band, composed of leader and trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman), and ambitious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman). The group exchange stories and opinions as they wait for Ma to arrive, only to find that she’s brought her young girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). Ma gets into a number of arguments with her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), the recording studio owner Mr. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), and even the band. As the day gets hotter, tempers and egos start flaring.
I don’t know if I can really say spoiler-free on a play that is older than I am, but I have read at least a few pieces that suggest that August Wilson’s work doesn’t get represented well in a lot of areas of the country, so this might be a lot of people’s first chance to see the play. I have only read it, but it seems like a pretty faithful adaptation from what I remember. There were some things that naturally were changed or added, and mostly subtracted, for the adaptation, but it seems overall to have gotten it right.
The biggest plus in this adaptation is that the two central figures, Ma Rainey and Levee, are both played by ridiculously talented actors. Viola Davis is… do I even have to explain how good Viola Davis is? She’s one of only 24 people to win the Triple Crown of acting and she’s both the only African-American to do so and the youngest winner. Since she won both a Tony and an Oscar for a previous adaptation of an August Wilson play, Fences, she was a natural selection here and her performance elevates every scene she’s in. She’s portraying a powerful black woman trying to use every bit of the power she has in a world that is dedicated to keeping her down and she sells it completely. Chadwick Boseman’s performance as the young and ambitious Levee was made only sadder by watching him play a character so focused on finding a future and knowing that his was so short. I can’t say whether it’s because I know he died after filming, but he looks like he’s trying as hard as he can in every scene to make sure that he shows a burning intensity befitting a character like Levee. You can practically see a raging fire behind his eyes in almost every shot, particularly when he’s explaining the story of what happened to his parents. He’s full of fury and power and is burdened with the knowledge that he can’t ever show it or his life will be over. It’s amazing.
The supporting cast is also fantastic. Each of the members of the band has a story to tell and the performances have to be captivating enough to keep you focused during the monologues they give. Colman Domingo is particularly good as Cutler because he’s stuck between trying to keep Levee in place while trying to deal with Ma’s diva demands. While he’s much less outspoken than Levee, you can see that he’s watching every situation, monitoring it like a cook trying to keep pots from boiling over, trying to do just enough to keep everything moving forward. Dusan Brown does a great job as Sylvester, who has to overcome his stutter in order to do the introduction on Ma Rainey’s recording, because she wants to help him earn some money. Since this is before multiple-track recordings, every time he messes up, they lose an entire master record, and he knows it. Brown’s portrayal is a perfect blend of scared, angry, and happy for the opportunity. Then there’s Taylor Paige as Dussie Mae, who gets to add a decent amount to her relatively scant dialogue through her reactions to both Ma and Levee. Really, just everyone is top-notch without exception.
Overall, just a fabulous movie. I haven’t been this captivated in a while, and I recommend it highly.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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