“Ma Rainey’s Black Underworld” is a celebration of three real-life black artists and legends. There is a blues singer, often referred to as the “Mother of the Blues”, whose name and song give the film the title. There is a writer, August Wilson who, inspired by Rainey and the era he found fame, made his 1984 play around his larger-than-life persona. And there’s Chadwick Boseman, taken from us too soon, who chose this difficult material to play with while living with cancer. We’ll never know if Boseman knew this would be his goose song; the fact that it haunts viewers, especially during one particular monologue. Boseman never gave less than a hundred percent for his often demanding roles. His job here as a trumpeter, Levee, is no exception. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say his last performance was probably his best.
Levee is an ambitious charmer who speaks fast, fast with his horns as he is with a coming line. Levee has higher goals than her current job as a member of the support band Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). This is bound to cause a difference of opinion, because as Cutler (Colman Domingo), the trombonist points out, Ma ends up calling all the shots instead of Levee. This musical ensemble features two divas, but only one original diva.
Played on stage in the original 1984 production and its 2003 revival (both I’ve seen) by Charles S. Dutton, Levee is just as sweet and charismatic as the situation needs to be. Beneath the exterior that is primarily a show is a scroll of smoldering rage that pierces his soul like a white man’s knife grazes his body in childhood. Underrated Dutton, a man bigger than Boseman, plays the temper a little closer to the surface. Here, Boseman uses his thinner body and the Cheshire cat grins more seductively and hypnotically, like a cobra captivating its victim before its deadly attack. “I can smile and say ‘yes sir’ to whoever I like,” he said in one of two major speeches adapted by screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson of Wilson’s play. “I have time to come.”
Levee and Ma are the hosts, but the rest of the band is more pragmatic, either because of age, wisdom, or just wanting to get in and out as quickly as possible. They are the first three to arrive, meeting up with agent Ma Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) in a rather shabby recording studio where they will record the album with the largest number of Ma’s (and a cover or two of Bessie Smith, which is sure to ruffle Ma’s fur. ). Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler created an early contrast between the outside world and the damp studio basement by bathing Cutler, Slow Drag, and Toledo crossing the street in incredible beauty that draws attention to the fake. This is the same place where we would meet Ma Rainey, albeit under much more realistic circumstances. Our acquaintance with the singer happened after someone hit his new car.
Prior to the star’s arrival, Levee joined the group clutching his new pair of shoes for $10, partly paid for by his win in the band’s card game the night before. People shoot the wind, often with a little suspense, and at one point, the wind blows towards the story of a man of color who sells his soul to the Devil. The sale left him somewhat untouchable, allowing him to escape murder and other much lesser offenses that would easily have him arrested or hanged. Wilson’s penchant for symbolically sprinkling elements of the supernatural into his plays takes on a humorous and ironic tone here—seemingly the only way for a black man to enjoy the same freedoms as his white counterpart in the 1920s is to broker a deal. with Beelzebub. This story also tells us about Cutler’s deeply religious background,
Finally, Ma arrives, covered in oil paint, annoyed with his car and drags Dussie Mae (Taylor Paige), his newest side piece. Rainey made no attempt to hide his sexual pleasure in women; in “Prove it on Me Blues,” he sings “out last night, with a crowd of my friends. Must be a girl, because I don’t like boys.” Even though Dussie Mae was too flirtatious, the band members knew she was off limits. Everyone, except Levee, that. Unlike the man in the demon story, Ma doesn’t need to sell his soul to have the power to cast. All he needed to do was sell records. And while Irvin bore the brunt of his anger, little sympathy was given to him as he would still have had a sweeter ending to the deal had he endured the abuse. “All they care about is my voice,” says Ma. So, why not make them get it? “They heard it coming out,” he says of white people listening to blues, “but they don’t know how it got there.”