This adaptation of August Wilson’s play is takes place almost entirely in a Chicago recording studio on a steamy hot summer day in the 1920s. Ma Rainey, a historical person, was a successful blues singer, although her audience was primarily black. The (fictional) white music producers are seeking a “crossover” hit that will appeal to white people as well.
Viola Davis does a magnificent job as Ma Rainey, conveying the force of her personality and her music despite the grotesque (and totally unnecessary) makeup designed to make her look like the historical woman, complete with bad teeth.
The real standout is Chadwick Boseman as Levee, a trumpet player in Ma’s backup band who, depending on who you talk to, is either a brilliant young musician or a poseur who plays too many notes. Levee, whose force of nature personality is almost equal to Ma’s, is a lot more optimistic and hopeful than any black boy brought up in early 20th C Alabama has a right to be. Boseman is spectacular in this role – anytime he is in the frame, even if he’s only in the corner, you can’t take your eyes off him. He has the ability to project his whole soul through his face. Boseman died of cancer shortly he completed work on this film – a real loss.