‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ further cements August Wilson’s legacy (Merecedes’ review)


by Merecedes J. Williams, For New Pittsburgh Courier

August Wilson’s literary brilliance, historical relevance and timeless legacy permeate the streets of Pittsburgh. Lifelong residents of the Steel City, along with temporary students and transitory techies, have felt the presence of August Wilson and his wonderful work.

Mr. Wilson has attracted some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, such as Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman to the commonwealth’s second-largest city.

The notoriety and promotion have continued to make Pittsburgh a pit stop for cinematic creativity. But most importantly, when adaptations like Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” are filmed here, it further proves the strength and longevity of August Wilson’s legacy.

Set to release Dec. 18 on Netflix, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is everything we crave during this global pandemic.

The adaptation is set in the 1920s when the sassy Southern songstress, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), records her album in Chicago. Ma Rainey finds an array of problems when there’s creative differences with music producers and fellow band members.

You know how they say, “Save the best for last.” Well, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is one of the year’s best films. As this difficult year comes to a close, Netflix’s stab at August Wilson’s cycle play is remarkably stellar. From the music to Ma Rainey’s makeup, everything is picturesque.

The timeless, turbulent themes of racial intimidation, childhood trauma and sexual fluidity that surfaced in the film are still relevant today.

Typically, when a film is made in Pittsburgh, we flock to the sticky floors at the South Side Works Cinemas (RIP) for a red-carpet premiere. It is when locals like me get to rub elbows with the upper echelons of Hollywood. But not this time—no movie theaters, no red carpet, no glitz and glamour.

VIOLA DAVIS as Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” to be released Dec. 18 on Netflix. (Photos courtesy Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” makes up for glitz and glamour with grit, grime, and star power. The film stars Viola Davis, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, and the late, great Chadwick Boseman in his final performance.

CHADWICK BOSEMAN, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” his final appearance as an actor. Boseman died earlier this year.

Similar to Paul Walker in “The Fate of the Furious,” Boseman gave us one last sweet memory to add to the vault. He was phenomenal, in life and in film. This year has taken so many notable people. But Boseman’s death has been one of the most difficult pills to swallow. Battling cancer (one could even say dying) while filming was a true testament to his talent and tenacity.

Academy Award-winner Viola Davis reflected on working with Boseman and described him as a man who “lived right” and “lived in the moment.”

“This is a man who is an artist,” she said.

The cast agreed that they were on a “blessed journey” to be with Chadwick Boseman in his last film.

The cast of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and director, George C. Wolfe, joined a virtual discussion on Nov. 14 moderated by Samuel L. Jackson to talk about the film. As I sat in on that discussion, Viola Davis said something that I will never forget about the authenticity of her character, Ma Rainey, and her “grease paint makeup”: “White people get a hold of our narratives, and then it’s told through a filter.”

Like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, to be apologetically Black means to not to let White people to get a hold of our story to retell it for profit or reshape it for public consumption.

I promise you; you have never seen Viola Davis like this. The versatility of Ma Rainey could only be played by one woman. She is dark and poignant, but she is also lively and spunky at the same time. Everything makes sense when Viola Davis transforms into Ma Rainey.

Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” celebrates “the beauty of August.”

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