Near the end of The Mother of Blues (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, 2020), Levee (Chadwick Boseman), Ma Rainey’s trumpeter, manages to open a door to the recording studio where he is. After several attempts, in a moment of great despair, the impetuous and confused young man finally succeeds; on the other side, a dead end awaits you. This scene sums up the film, which takes on the desires and frustrations of a black man consumed by an artistic and racial rage that definitively condemns him.
During a hot afternoon in the 1920s, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band set out to record. The session starts off badly with the delay of some of them, but worsens when the singer is despotic and pedantic before her manager and the owner of the studio, both white.
As if that weren’t enough, Levee reveals to her teammates her plans to embark on a solo career, which doesn’t take long to raise the tension. The recording continues its course, but the confrontation between all those present is inevitable.
Netflix is home to the latest project by Denzel Washington (producer), who seems to be leaning more towards behind-the-scenes roles already. Despite having a relatively unknown director in the film world, the theatrical experience of George C. Wolfe it is decisive to conceive this history as Washington saw it.
Based on the work of the same name by August Wilson, The Mother of Blues It is not in the least a biographical tape; Come on, you could even say that Rainey is not even the protagonist of a film that is more interested in exploring the racial, social and generational dynamics of a time when music was a real business.
Despite a cast that fully complies, the entire weight of the film falls on the shoulders of Davis and Boseman, actors who offer a couple of memorable performances, especially the latter, who, without a doubt, delivers the best of his career. . Sadly, the actor could not attest to the great reception his work has had; Boseman died last August.
Although the moments they share on screen are scarce, their solo stories open up old wounds, show their love for music, and exhibit the cost of engaging in an art that is not understood as they would like..
Davis and Boseman play two characters who, despite being radically opposite, have several things in common. They both guard their work with suspicion, although Rainey has no qualms about slagging not just white people, but anyone whose behavior deserves it, including Levee. The latter, on the other hand, takes out his frustrations with his own race and is submissive to the whites, all for having a chance to shine on his own.
This, of course, is worth the criticism of the other musicians, who take advantage of the dead time of the session to remind him of the brutality of the white man and the need not to lower his face before his supposed superiority. While both characters are fascinating, the traumas that Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben-Santiago Hudson explore add a greater dimension to a deeply traumatized man.
The Mother of Blues fully adopt the essence of the original material. With an extensive use of monologues, just two spaces where the actions take place and everything focused on the performances, the film is presented, basically, as a version for the small screen of this staging andn scene.
This deprives the filmmakers of entering new territories, but the quality of their work makes us forget about the lack of risks. Either way, short but pleasant scenes, like the one in which we see the painstaking and tortuous process of recording a vinyl record, add a more cinematic touch to the story. And of course, the one in which they get the first good take is a delight.
Davis steps into Rainey’s shoes in an overwhelming way. Like a specter that moves erratically, humiliating whoever comes in front of him, especially if he is white, this character arouses great interest in the viewer. His permanent sweating, terrible humor and aggressive attitude are assimilated by Davis to build a less idealized but highly effective version of the iconic singer.
Either way, even if it’s just for an instant, it’s possible to see a kinder side to Rainey when she gets the chance to speak with her bandleader about what her music really means to her.
The Mother of Blues It is a tribute to the legacy of the legendary singer, but also a demonstration of the great talent of Boseman; It wouldn’t be unusual to see him nominated for an Oscar posthumously next year. The tragedy at the end, not only the one involving Levee, but also his music, awakens a feeling similar to the one he exhibits moments before, when despair takes hold of him during an afternoon full of disappointments.
The Mother of Blues is available on Netflix.