MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (2020)

December 21, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. As an Executive Producer, Denzel Washington has pledged to bring 10 August Wilson plays (collectively known as ‘The Pittsburgh Cycle’ or ‘Century Cycle’) to cinema. The first was the Oscar-nominated FENCES (2016), and George C Wolf directs this, the second. Ruben Santiago-Hudson has adapted Wilson’s 1984 play into a feature film vehicle for some of the finest on screen acting we will see this year.

Viola Davis (Oscar winner, FENCES) stars as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the “Mother of Blues”, and the recently deceased Chadwick Boseman co-stars as Levee, her ambitious trumpet player. Ms. Davis delivers a towering performance, and Mr. Boseman leaves us with his career best. The film opens in 1927 rural Georgia with two African-Americans running through the woods under the cover of darkness. If your mind goes where my mind did, we are both wrong. They are headed to a shack acting as a nightclub, and we get our first look and listen at Ma belting out a tune. It’s a powerful image and one that expertly sets the tone.

Soon we are in Chicago as Ma’s band makes their way to a recording studio. Cutler (Colman Santiago, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, 2018) plays the trombone and is the de facto leader, Toledo (an excellent Glynn Turman, “Fargo”) is the piano player, and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) plays the bass. The three older men all arrive on time at the studio and are waiting on trumpet player Levee (Boseman) and Ma. When Levee does show up, he struts into the rehearsal room and flashes his new shoes. The generational difference is immediately evident, and the fiery banter is superb. Levee is charming and cocky, while the older men are wise from experience and have undoubtedly seen dozens of Levees throughout their years. Cutler’s strong religious beliefs become known and Toledo’s sage advice falls on deaf ears.

Ma literally crashes into the scene, and we quickly understand that this woman will apologize for nothing, and has earned the right to call her own shots – even if that’s only true in this one corner of the universe. She understand the power her record sales give her, and she seizes every possible upper hand – whether it’s which arrangement to sing on a song, allowing her stuttering nephew to record, or even demanding a cold coca-cola before singing. Ma speaks in third person and her attitude is not that of a warm, grateful person, but rather of a woman who understands what she has earned. When she says, “All they want is my voice”, we know exactly what she means.

More collisions occur, this time figuratively. There is a collision of swagger between Ma and Levee. The collision of generations with Levee and the band. Finally, there is the collision of Levee and the white man. Ma wants to sing her songs on the record the way she sings them for her fans, while Levee is pushing for the “new” up-tempo sound. Levee’s ambition for songwriting and putting together his own band clashes with the older musicians who are satisfied to be working, and Levee tries to play the game by playing up to the white men in power, only to be taught the lesson that his bandmates tried to warn him of.

Wilson is known for his speeches, and the key players get their moment. Toledo describes blacks as “the leftovers”, while Ma describes white people listening to the blues … “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.” These are powerful moments, yet standing above them are the two soliloquies we hear from Levee. The first is about his background of family and introduction to white men, while the second is truly an other-worldly cinematic moment – he contests the unwavering religious beliefs in what ultimately proves to be the most tragic way. It’s a scene which will be Mr. Boseman’s long-lasting acting legacy.

Supporting work is provided by Jeremy Shamos as Ma’s agent Irvin, Taylour Paige as another line in the sand between Ma and Levee, Dusan Brown as Ma’s nephew, and Jonny Coyne as the studio owner/producer. This is not so much a story, but rather inspiration for us to assemble the various pieces into the backstories of these characters. It’s a way for us to better understand what they did to get here, and how they are handling it now. Step on the shoes at your own peril. When someone overcomes so much in life, they aren’t likely to back down gently. The music is terrific, the message is strong, and the performances are unforgettable.

Now streaming on Netflix

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42 (2013)

April 13, 2013

42a Greetings again from the darkness. After some soul searching, I have decided to turn off the critical side of my brain and concentrate on what is good about this movie. As a baseball and movie fanatic, a bit of trepidation creeps in when the two worlds collide. However, this isn’t really a baseball movie, though the story focuses on what may be the most critical turning point in baseball history. In fact, this turning point was much bigger than the American Pasttime … it was also a key step in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement. The movie is a reminder of how different things could have been with the wrong man rather than the right one … Jackie Robinson.

Writer/Director Brian Helgeland (s/p for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) takes a look at what occurred in 1945-47, when Brooklyn Dodgers President and GM Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) made the business decision to integrate 42cbaseball. We see his selection process … Roy Campanella “too nice”, Satchel Paige “too old”. He settles on Jackie Robinson after their infamous 3 hour meeting where Rickey confronts Robinson with his need for a black player “with the guts NOT to fight back”.

Chadwick Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson as a man thoroughly in love with his wife Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie), and one who says he just wants to “be a ballplayer”, while at the same time taking pride in his world-changing role. We see his evolution from his stint as shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of Negro Leagues to his time with the Dodgers’ AAA minor league team in Montreal and finally to his introduction to the Major Leagues in 1947. Boseman 42eflashes the charisma and athletic ability to pull off the role … there are times he looks identical to the young Jackie.

This is an earnest and sincere movie that removes the complexities of the times and the main characters. Much of it is portrayed as good guys versus bad guys. The good guys are really good and the bad guys are really bad. Alan Tudyk has the unenviable task of portraying Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who famously unleashed an in-game verbal assault of vile racism on Robinson. Mr. Rickey credited Chapman’s public small-mindedness as the single biggest factor in unifying the Dodger team around Robinson. The other famous moment given time in the movie is when 42bbeloved shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) put his arm around Robinson, shushing the hostile Cincinnati fans. Of course as a baseball fan, I enjoyed the all too brief antics of Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) whose place in the Robinson story would have been much more profound had he not succumbed to the weakness of the flesh (so to speak).

Other supporting roles include John C McGinley, who is spot on as the Hall of Fame announcer Red Barber, Derek Phillips as an unusually quiet Bobby Bragan, Jesse Luken as Hall of Famer Eddie Stanky, Andre Holland as Wendell Smith (the Pittsburgh Courier reporter assigned to follow Robinson), Peter Mackenzie as Commissioner Happy Chandler and young Dusan Brown as a 10 year old boy who would grow up to be major leaguer Ed Charles.  Some comic relief is provided by 42dHamish Linklater as pitcher Ralph Branca (one of the first who welcomed Robinson to the clubhouse, and who would go down in baseball history as the pitcher who surrendered the 1951 “shot heard round the world” by Bobby Thomson).

Filmmaker Helgeland provides a tale of morality and social change, and provides a glimpse at the character and strength required by those involved. The story has much more to do with demonstrating how the times began to change than it does with how Jackie Robinson, an unpolished ballplayer but superior athlete, transformed himself into a perennial all-star and league MVP. And that’s as it should be. As Rickey stated, acceptance will only occur if the world is convinced Robinson is a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. That burden must have weighed heavily at times, but it’s very clear that Robinson was the right man at the right time.

**NOTE: the time frame for this story is limited to Robinson’s historic, barrier-crashing major league debut, but it should be noted that Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the MVP in 1949, played in 6 all-star games and World Series in his 10 year career,and was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1962.  Prior to his baseball career, he was a four sport letterman at UCLA and also served in the US Army.  Robinson died in 1972 from a heart condition and complications from diabetes. His wife is still active and still running the foundation that provides scholarships for youngsters.  Quite an amazing lady.

Here is a photo of the real Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey:

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