Skip to main content

This be an empty world without the blues.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
(2020)

(SPOILERS) Is there any point making a movie from a play if you’re unable to overcome its essential staginess? At their best, even confined productions can fire on all cylinders – 12 Angry Men, Glengarry Glen Ross – but a director without the necessary acumen, or perhaps motivation, may be left high and dry. George C Wolfe comes from the theatre but has a decade and a half of film direction behind him, yet it never feels as if he has a firm grip on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Ma Rainey: They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they want is my voice.

But never mind. A prestige picture is a prestige picture, and we’re currently at a point where the period-piece African-American experience, for reasons that are less than organic, is squarely in the quota-led, outrage-averse sights of awards ceremonies everywhere – even the Golden Globes. As opposed to, you know, the Merchant Ivory fare of old. In some respects, there’s very little difference between them, as both can feel equally mannered and stale, too fixated on the appearances to carry any weight or substance in their own right.

At least this adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play is blessedly short. Fences was more than two hours, and it really felt it; I can still feel it now, four years on. Denzel Washington, being to all outward appearances a decent chap and a bit of a stage hound himself, has taken on the mantle of curating Wilson’s work for the big screen (or flat one). Which, let’s face it, likely would never see the cinematic light of day were it not for “auteur” havens like Netflix willing to fritter money away in order to keep a star sweet (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom certainly won’t have been a ratings juggernaut). That, and diversity-rich fare is a sensible means for snapping up Oscar nominations. And Netflix, despite negligible quality control, is desperate for such respected status.

The essential tension of the material – renowned stuck-in-her-ways blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) refusing to give ground to unsympathetic white management or upstart with-it band member Levee (Chadwick Boseman) – is reasonably promising. Occasionally, the music provides a distraction – stammering Sylvester, played by Dusan Brown, getting his intro right after numerous takes – but mostly, it’s merely a backdrop to the studied mechanics of character badinage and conflict. This varies from the downright tedious – the opening passage between band members Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) is a woefully slow drag, and only becomes more obvious in its laboured construction when Levee arrives – to overwritten. Overwriting can be a boon if there’s accompanying nuance and rhythm, but scenes of Cutler railing at Levee’s blasphemy and Levee’s lunging at him with Chekov’s Knife are more clumsy and coerced than considered.

Ma Rainey, meanwhile, is a mire of OTT makeup, explosive ire and wallowing insecurity, with Davis apparently incapable of finding a sympathetic soul anywhere beneath. Ma’s acutely aware of the avarice at play in the limited respect shown by producer Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) while lashing out at anyone encroaching on her territory (Levee, whom she eventually fires for playing too many notes). There are scenes clearly designed to make us empathise in Ma Rainey’s Fat Ass, but everything about Davis’ big loud caricature of performance is too broad and rackety to make us care.

Chadwick, punchy and wired, is clearly giving his all, but Levee’s cocky (or red roosterish) talent with a tragic temper is nothing very singular. Boseman also looks transparently unwell, so presumably that’s sufficient reason to give him the Oscar as well as the Globe (struggle against adversity and untimely death and virtue signalling make for a potent brew). The final act of eruptive violence feels no less than a tired dramatist’s last resort to ensure the audience leaves the theatre with just the necessary spirit of contemplative despair at it all (it’s manipulative, but hey, what isn’t?) Wolfe’s embroidered ending – absent from the play – whereby the songs Sturdyvant bought cheaply from Levee as unusable are now gracing white artists, is there to underline what a fiend whitey is. This feels like an unnecessary hammer blow, but nothing we’ve seen here has been subtle. Except, maybe Ma’s curiously chaste behaviour with regard to her attentions towards Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), in direct contrast to Levee’s decidedly-not-so ones towards the same.

Indeed, the way Wolfe shoots, there’s only really a semblance of character when someone is speaking, making it a miracle Turman makes any impression. Wilson’s play was written 55 years after the period of its setting, which means it’s as ornately inclined towards period artifice (although, this is the height of authenticity sat next to Aaron Sorkin’s flashy but phoney The Trial of the Chicago 7). As a consequence, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom often resembles an over-inflected Coen brothers parody of period plays (“I'm blowin' out of here, blowin' for good. I'm kissin' it all goodbye, these four stinkin' walls, the six flights up, the el that roars by at three A.M. like a cast-iron wind. Kiss 'em goodbye for me, Maury! I'll miss 'em – like hell I will!”) And that’s without the creaky theatrical mechanics Wolfe contrives to emphasise (count the times everything stops dead so a character can deliver an aching monologue).

Levee: What the hell do I care about some bad luck? Hell, I eat it every day for breakfast!

Wolfe is barely there as a director, which if Hitchcock’s dilemma with Juno and the Paycock is anything to go by, he shouldn’t be blamed for. Nevertheless, we can see from the few exterior scenes how acutely incapable he is of injecting any energy in the proceedings that doesn’t derive (a) from the actors and (b) from the music. Obama liked the film, apparently. No word on Michael’s verdict. Indeed, almost everyone appears to love it. Except reliable Armond White claiming (amusingly) “They’ve turned August Wilson into an irate Tyler Perry”. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the very definition of inert. Perhaps the underwhelming material plays better on the stage. Still, it’s getting the awards recognition, and that’s what counts. I’m sure Denzel will see to it the other eight entries The Pittsburgh Cycle are “staged”, and Netflix will doubtless be equally keen to get in on the Oscar bait next time as well.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?