It was 1927 in Chicago. "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) was recording some of her songs at the studio of Mr. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) as arranged by her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos). Her trusty bandmates were all there: Custer (Colman Domingo) on trombone, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass, and Toledo (Glynn Turman) on the piano.
And then, there was also an arrogant and ambitious trumpet player Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman). His "modern" ways of doing music his way did not sit well with Ma and the rest of the band. He felt his talent deserved to have his own band and recordings. His rebellious attitude stirred up major tensions during that fateful recording session.
Viola Davis played the impossibly imperious diva Ma Rainey who knew her voice was valuable enough for her to insist on what she wanted, while white folks tripped over themselves to keep her happy. She knew what she was worth and she demanded it. This was an empowered role that Davis totally embodied. She's played strong characters before, but this time, her eyes were literally burning out of their sockets. It had only been three years since Davis won her first Oscar, but this performance has got Oscar written all across it as well.
The late Chadwick Boseman already looking very thin physically, but his acting was no less explosive. He had a powerful scene where he was telling the band about a traumatic childhood experience and another one angrily challenging God. Those two scenes may have already have that posthumous Oscar for Best Actor all sewn up for him. Too bad most of the world only knew Boseman as the Black Panther before he passed away. Seeing his performance here as Levee, Boseman clearly had so much more to offer.
The unmistakable theatrical feel of this George C. Wolfe film owed to the fact that the screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson had been adapted from the 1982 play by August Wilson, the same playwright who originally wrote "Fences," for which Viola Davis won her first Oscar in 2017. The remarkable cinematography, faithful period production design, make-up, costumes (by Ann Roth), and jazzy original score (by Branford Marsalis) were all of awards caliber. Denzel Washington wore a producer's hat here, part of his commitment to bring the plays of August Wilson about the African-American experience to the big screen.
African-American racial and cultural pride are front and center in this extraordinary film, and this was further elevated by the passionate performances of Davis and Boseman.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."