Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)/ One Night in Miami (2020)
Two new movies are poised for major awards consideration, both based on plays by black authors, and both providing insights into the injustices and experiences of different black Americans from the past. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix streaming and One Night in Miami will soon be available through Amazon Prime in January, and both movies are observant, reflective, unsparing, hard-hitting, and provide some of the best acting you’ll see in movies this year.
In 1930s Chicago, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is assembling a team of musicians to record her latest blues single “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Cutler (Colman Domingo) will play trombone, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) will play the bass, old man Toledo (Glynn Turman) will play piano, and Levee (Chadwick Boseman) will play the trumpet. Levee has big ideas about what he can offer, and the rest of the band is happy to simply play their parts. Ma Rainey has her own demands for the record, some of which run counter to Levee and her own manager, and the many personalities will come into direct conflict on one very hot summer day.
The big reason to see Ma Rainey, beyond the fact that it’s an amazing adaption of a great August Wilson play, is because it’s the final film performance from the late Chadwick Boseman. The world was stunned when the Black Panther actor suddenly died in August in the prime of his career. He had been hiding a years-long battle with colon cancer that only made his work ethic more astonishing. This man knew his life could very likely be cut short, but he wanted to make a difference by using his celebrity status to portray a gallery of historical heroes like Thurgood Marshall and James Brown. Of course, it also raises the question why waste your valuable time on something as mediocre as 21 Bridges. Regardless, with this new knowledge, it’s impossible not to find extra layers of meaning with Boseman’s final remarkable performance. Immediately you notice how thin he is, lanky, and now we know why. The character feels like someone just stringing along on the faintest of threads, a hope for a better tomorrow, and Boseman’s gaunt physical form reinforces that desperate impression. There’s also a moving moment where Levee is monologuing about his disdain for God’s lack of intervention in his life, during his mother’s assault by a team of white men, during the entire experience of every African American. It’s hard not to read the actor’s own personal struggle into this confrontational moment, lashing out at the unfairness of a life denied too early, and it just makes a tragic figure even more wearingly tragic. The final image is so summative of Levee’s tragedy and the music industry profiting off the entrenched exploitation of black musicians, that it feels so dispiriting even without further explanation.
The entire time I was relishing Boseman’s performance like one final meal, and the man makes a feast of it. Another critic compared Boseman’s performance to an athlete “leaving it all on the field,” and I couldn’t agree more. The man gives you everything he has. It’s not a subdued and subtle performance, though Wilson’s plays don’t tend to settle for subdued characters speaking with pronounced subtlety (see: Fences). The playwright’s gift is for crafting big characters with big personalities and big problems, and that’s the way we like it. Levee is a character with more than chip on his shoulder, he has the whole block. He’s bursting with nervous energy, masked as excitement, and eager to finally hit those last few hurdles and get the fame he feels is destined. The other members of the accompaniment are older, settled in their ways and comfortably pessimistic about The Way the World Works. They know the deck is stacked against them and they have accepted this injustice (“Be happy with what you can get,” they argue). Levee is still fighting, still hoping he can break through on the merits of his talents and perseverance, and we can all suspect the hard reality that will come crashing down later. Boseman is captivating from start to finish. It’s his greatest performance of his all-too short career and one I fully expect to sweep come the delayed awards season. It’s the best male acting I’ve seen for all of 2020. As I kept watching, a sadness washed over me, much like watching Heath Ledger during the end of 2008’s The Dark Knight, a melancholy realization that this is it, it’s almost over, and this is all we’ll ever get from an actor who was just beginning to make substantial waves and leave their mark on the industry.
While Boseman’s lead is the biggest draw, Ma Rainey has plenty other aspects deserving of praise. Every character gets time to be fleshed out into feeling like real, complicated people with complicated pasts worth illuminating. Most of the play’s characters are black musicians during a very racist period in American history (you could readily argue that this description applies to all periods). They know they’re being exploited, and they know that these smiling white men with money are only being polite as long as they have something to offer that these men want. Even Ma is aware of her leverage. She’s a successful singer who sells plenty of records, but fame can be fleeting, and her records aren’t selling like they used to, and she knows time is short. She’ll be cast off and replaced by another singer/performer who doesn’t have the wherewithal to push back. Davis (Widows) is a force in this movie, flinty and proud and no-nonsense. She’s great even if she has less screen time than any of the male musicians. It feels like more could be had from exploring her character, her passions, her lesbianism, her sense of self, but Davis still makes quite a presence.
The injustice of the circumstances of the musicians are emblematic of the black experience with America a hundred years hence. Levee has a monologue about his father having to sell his own land to his wife’s attackers. Cutler has a monologue about a preacher who got off on the wrong train stop in Florida and was harassed and threatened by an unruly crowd, his vestments serving him no mercy from a racist mob. Wilson’s wonderful words are brought to sterling life from these seasoned performers and their digressions and reflections better paint a thematic mosaic of shared communal pain. The way the movie holds your attention even when Boseman isn’t on screen is a testament to how engaging and well-realized Wilson’s characters can be no matter how small.
With One Night in Miami, based upon the play by Kemp Powers (co-director of Soul), we follow big names of sports and politics that improbably convened together one night in 1964. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has just become heavyweight champion of boxing and is poised to announce his conversion to Islam under the tutelage of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) has crossed over into movies and is starting to think about life after football. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is riding high off his recording fame but wondering how much more of himself and his artistic voice he should insert. Over the course of this long night, the four men will converse, bond, butt heads, and make changes with their responsibilities.
The movie, adapted by Kemp as well, establishes each participant before bringing them together for that fateful night (inspired by true events, meaning it’s entirely fictionalized). This first act does a fine job of establishing each character but especially a point of insecurity for them that we’ll watch later become raw and, hopefully, reconciled or re-examined. Jim Brown worries that no matter his level of success, he’ll never be legitimate to a section of America. He’s looking at movies as his inroad but even someone of his fame is still the black character killed first. Cassius Clay is hesitant about making his announcement to Mohammad Ali and Islam, second-guessing the commitment he’s signing up for. Sam Cooke is known for his fluffy pop songs and feels like a sellout, needing the credibility of making music that matters. Malcolm X is preparing to break away from the Nation of Islam after his distaste for the hypocrisy of its leadership. He’s positioning Cassius Clay’s announcement as his big pivot point to make a name for his own break-off movement and hopeful that the media attention will translate into new converts.
The combustibility of this night makes for plenty of compelling drama. Malcolm X is an instigator with the others, spurring them to use their privileged platforms to enact change that can be useful for the Civil Rights movement. He squares his attention on Sam, calling him out for being a tool of white moneymen and even plays him Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and asks why this white man is writing more politically active music than Cooke. The singer pushes back, saying he allowed the Rolling Stones to sample his song because it brings more money into his pocket and his songwriters that he can use to profit black businesses. He proclaims he recognizes the system and is playing it to his advantage. They have very different perspectives that clash, making fine drama that spills over. It’s a purity versus pragmatism argument, one that Cooke raises to flout the indulgences he sees in the leadership of the Nation of Islam, a fact we know Malcolm X is aware of and also cannot stomach. It’s also a version of Malcolm X that is more vulnerable than we’re accustomed to seeing. We’re used the strident, righteous Malcolm X, and here he’s much more indecisive and struggling with making some big personal decisions. Leaving his religious organization is verboten, and he’s looking to reform what he views as sinful failings from his peers, and much rests on the publicity of Clay coming forward. This puts Clay in a tough position especially as he feels uncertain about this commitment. The continual push and pull of these four men lead to several interesting discussions, many that become heated, that allow each to open up as a real and complex person, not just a picture in a textbook.
The ensemble is overall quite solid, though the two biggest performers are the ones at the widest ideological divide. Odom Jr. (Hamilton) brings a distinct charisma and has a silky singing voice you wish you got to hear more often, but he’s also hiding a clear disdain. Whether it’s pride or whether it’s shame, it’s there, and Odom harnesses it to make his character feel like a cat ready to strike, wound up from being dismissed by too many others. Ben-Adir (The OA) nails the intonations of Malcolm X but also adds extra layers of doubt and awkwardness. He tries to parry concerns from the other guys that a “party” in this one motel room will be lame by promoting the power of ice cream (only flavor available: vanilla). This is a humbled and scared Malcolm X, one on the precipice of potentially losing his movement and standing to his ethics, and some may argue his ego. Ben-Adir is soulful and presents a fully formed performance more than lazy imitation (he also played President Obama in the recent Comey Rule miniseries for Showtime).
The biggest question with play adaptations is the challenge of making them feel bigger and more cinematic than contained conversations. Nobody wants to feel trapped in a broom closet. First time film director Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) gets the most from her performers and handling of the subject matter, though the various rooms inside and outside the Miami motel provide little in the way of variance. The men go to the roof to watch the fireworks. A couple leave to go get some liquor. The focus is on the men, so the background of the setting isn’t a huge deal to the entertainment. King’s direction is more felt in the performances, as most actors-turned-directors tend to be, and with that she’s aces. With Ma Rainey, director George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) does an excellent job of opening the spaces visually but also making the spaces reflective of mood. The ashy rundown basement where the band practices, the sweat-glistening off the performers with the hot, daub lighting, the peeling paint and broken doors leading to symbolic dead-ends. Wolfe has a stronger command of visuals, not just making his pictures pretty, but also making his play-turned-film feel less confined by its original stage bound limitations.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami are both deserving of your attention. I found Ma Rainey to be the more engaging movie with the higher artistic peaks, anchored by an amazing and career-defining performance from Chadwick Boseman. One Night in Miami is consistently probing and generous and thoughtful and superbly acted as well. Both movies are great tools for empathy and interesting to take together considering they churn with experiences of black characters fighting for equality from a broken system several decades apart. There have been gains made from the time period of Ma Rainey but Malcolm X’s complaints are extremely valid, and many resonate today in the face of systematic racism and police brutality. Watch both movies when available and welcome more black-penned plays making the big screen leap.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A-
One Night in Miami: B+