By Gregg Shapiro
Going to the theater to see a play is on hold for the near future, even with the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine and the rollout, which is getting mixed reviews. Fortunately, there are enough movie adaptations available and on the way – including “The Prom,” “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” “In The Heights” and “West Side Story” – to quench a theater queen’s thirst.
Sadly, the late, prolific playwright August Wilson who died in 2005 never got a chance to see the movie versions of two of his plays; “Fences” from 2016 and 2020’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix). He probably would have been particularly pleased with the performances of Viola Davis, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Fences” and appears to be a shoo-in for an Oscar nod for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
From the moment she appears onscreen, performing a show in a tent in rural Georgia in 1927, followed by a more professionally presented concert in a theater, it’s impossible to take our eyes off of queer mother of the blues, Ma Rainey (Davis). From her gold teeth and dark eye shadow to her glorious dresses and occasional fur collar, she is a sight to behold. In Chicago for a recording session, she is accompanied by her nephew (and driver) Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and her lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and for every stare she gets, she gives it back double.
Her band, led by trumpeter Cutler (gay actor Colman Domingo, whom some may remember for his portrayal of Maya Angelou on “The Big Gay Sketch Show”), is already at the studio rehearsing for the session. Also there is pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and ambitious trumpeter Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman). Levee is an unrelenting thorn in Ma and the band’s side. He writes and plays arrangements that differ from Ma’s. He scoffs at the older band members, becoming threatening to Cutler and Toledo. He even dares to flirt with Dussie Mae.
Here’s the problem with “Ma Rainey”: in the hands of gay, Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe, the movie alternates between being stagey and cinematic. The scenes with band members in the rehearsal space before Ma’s late arrival are filled with typical, if exaggerated, male banter, teasing and competitiveness. There is talk of God and blasphemy, the ways black men must find to survive in white culture. The rehearsal space, with one open door and one locked door, feels claustrophobic and too theatrical, and the often-repetitive dialogue doesn’t help matters.
Enter Ma Rainey! Each and every scene in which she appears, from the car accident in front of the studio and her heated interactions with white manager Irving (Jeremy Shamos) and recording studio head Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) to her intimate moment with Dussie Mae and her encouragement of stuttering Sylvester are gloriously vibrant. Her clashes with Levee are raw and real. Her performance at the recording studio mic is riveting. It makes you wish there was more Ma Rainey and less of everyone else.
Nevertheless, Boseman, in his final performance, more than holds his own from start to finish. Domingo also proves himself a fine dramatic actor.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “One Night in Miami…” (Amazon Studios) — have more in common than you might expect. Both were based on plays by Black playwrights and feel theatrical and stagey in good and bad ways. Both are set in the past and deal with racist issues, making them timelier than ever. Both feature a singer among the lead roles. Both star a majority Black cast and are helmed by Black directors.
Directed by Oscar-winning actress Regina King, “One Night in Miami…” is a fictional dramatization inspired by true events. An adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play of the same name, it brings together four men from different backgrounds whose contributions to Black culture continues to resonate to the present day. They are boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), before he was known as Muhammad Ali; soul singer and songwriter Sam Cooke (“Hamilton”’s Leslie Odom, Jr.); human and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, who also manages to channel Barack Obama at the same time); and football legend turned actor Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).
Beginning in 1963, the introductory sequence of the movie shows each of the men in personal and professional interactions. Fast-talking and fast-moving Clay loses a boxing match at Wembley Stadium in London. Cooke fails to win over an all-white audience at The Copa in New York. Brown experiences an unexpected racist slur from an old family friend in Georgia. Finally, Malcolm, his wife Betty (Joaquina Kalukango), and their daughters may lose their home if he proceeds with his plan to leave the Nation of Islam.
But in 1964, the four friends’ fortunes are about to turn around. In a match against Sonny Liston in Miami Beach, Clay defeats his opponent to become the world heavyweight champion. Before the match, Clay meets with Malcolm at the Hampton House, a segregation-era motel in Miami Beach, so they could pray together. Clay, who is seriously considering converting to Islam, is actually the trump card for Malcolm’s next step in life. As we soon discover, Clay is unaware of this.
Nevertheless, his triumph in the ring was a reason for the four men to gather. However, none of them probably anticipated the volatility of such a congregation. Malcolm, under the watchful eye of bodyguards, the strict Kareem X (Lance Reddick) and more easygoing Jamaal (Christian Magby), is also aware that he is being observed by outsiders and is feeling pressured. So, in the midst of the celebratory atmosphere, something is boiling and brewing under the surface.
The verbal attacks they level against each other are personal and political. Their life decisions are scrutinized and judged. Malcolm for his unwavering religious devotion. Brown for abandoning his athletic career to go Hollywood. Cooke for wanting to be embraced by white audiences. Only man-of-the- hour Clay, who would go on to change his name to Muhammad Ali as part of his conversion, manages to remain somewhat unscathed, although the threat of physical violence hangs in the air.
All four lead actors are incredible in the embodiment of their roles. Goree and Odom, are particularly riveting, each giving an Oscar-worthy performance. However, like gay director Wolfe’s adaptation of the Wilson play, King’s rendition of Powers’ work is most electrified (and less claustrophobic) when it steps outside of the confines of the “set” (in this case, a motel room). Whether it’s on the motel’s roof with the view of Miami, a nearby liquor store parking lot, in a bar celebrating Ali’s win, or on the set of “The Tonight Show.” Regardless, King also deserves kudos for her impressive directorial skills. GG
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”: B- / “One Night in Miami…”: B+