There’s a moment in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ the August Wilson play adapted for the screen starting Dec 18th on Netflix, when the tension between characters Levee (Chadwick Boseman) and Cutler (Colman Domingo) grows so thick you’ll want to hold your breath. They’re fighting about God, about America and their own humanity, when Boseman delivers lines that cut you to the bone, sentiments so connected to my thinking I almost leapt from my body.
The camera jumps to Cutler, aghast and awash in a mix of fury, hopelessness and guilt. This scene is one of the finest I’ve ever seen. The danger is presented so insidiously, a textual snake in the grass waiting to sink venom in you.
‘That scene does bring up a lot of things that we may feel, personally. Those fears that we may have, and what god’s will is,’ said Domingo.
The Fear of the Walking Dead star is an absolute standout in a film teeming with brilliant performances. Translating art from stage to screen is notoriously difficult, but what works so great here is the deft camera work executed under the tutelage of broadway legend George C. Wolfe, and the thousand watt talents of this cast.
If anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Domingo, an adventurous spirit who got his start in theater, and has brought an ineffable fire and grace to every role, a commitment and love that are as admirable as they are aspirational.
‘You can’t come halfway with Viola and Chad and Michael and Glynn, you gotta bring your whole A-game,’ he said.
The cast was fully aware not only of the gravity of performing the work of the world’s most-celebrated Black playwright, but also of the gravity of Chadwick’s performance.
‘I’m sure there’s a piece of me and a piece of Chad in there. So that’s why it was so…painful. It was painful. But we had to give it our all, cause that’s what the work requires,’ he said.
Viola Davis is nothing short of staggering as Ma Rainey, a gay blues singer in 1927 who speaks her mind and lets her evocative voice fill in the rest. Watching her work isn’t just impressive, it’s a joy. It imbues in you words that are always hard to find, allows you to feel the humanity and self-love that’s just out of reach.
Another gobsmacking scene is between Rainey and Cutler, with the former finally feeling comfortable after spending much of the film in conflict. She’s talking to Cutler about how the blues is more than just catharsis; it’s a roadmap.
‘You don’t sing to feel better. You sing cause that’s a way of understanding life,’ says Rainey.
I told Domingo I had a knee-jerk reaction to Ma’s brusque energy, a self-flagellating urge to tell her to shrink herself for the sake of getting through the session. Domingo addressed it with the artful forthrightness he brings to his roles:
‘I think immediately people look at her as a trope of being angry, like she’s gonna be a destructive Black woman,’ he said.
‘But in actuality, as the film goes on, you see how it’s justified. She’s basically just saying I want my worth and that’s it. And it takes the Ma’s of the world to make change.’
Let’s all bring some Ma into this next year, cause it’s gonna be tough. Sing the blues, but carry a big stick.