I’m Gonna Show You the Best in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Packing a multitude of history, culture, stories and trauma into a single “day in the life” of a legendary blues entertainer is just one of the brilliant tricks Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom pulls off.

Director George C. Wolfe is most famous for his theater work, and the film is an adaptation of August Wilson’s amazing play. Not a single shot or moment is wasted in the film’s 94-minute runtime. Wolfe brilliantly uses classical cinematic language to transmit backstory and history in a matter of seconds. Witness the opening scene of two black people running through a swampy woodland, representing the multitudes who escaped the bondage of slavery only to live in constant fear and more oppression, and ultimately entering a giant tent where Ma Rainey is bringing down the house. Later in the film there’s a definitive shot from underneath a Chicago train rattling by that transitions seamlessly into Ma Rainey and her band nailing the recording of the titular song. Here we see people in constant movement, migration, darting from danger, surviving, finding a voice…an escape. But the blues was more a reflection of life than an escape, and it’s in those claustrophobic theatrical moments when the band banters in the dingy basement rehearsal room about their lives, their traumas, and their place in this messed up world where Wilson’s voice sings the loudest and clearest. It is there where the tensions rise leading to a shattering denouement, and a chilling closing scene of pain white-washed, talent stolen.

Of course, all of this is a stage for the exorcism of performances. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey is earth-shatteringly good, with the actress showing us again (like she did in Fences) how comfortable she is digging so deep down and spookily into not only Wilson’s words, but also the spirits of generations of traumatized but boldly resilient black women. She’s matched, and some might say even overshadowed, in a way, by the late great Chadwick Boseman as the showy, troubled trumpeter Levee Green. Davis makes you feel every word Ma Rainey speaks or sings, but Boseman’s portrayal of Levee’s family tragedies nearly brought me to tears.

All the key players have their moments to shine: Davis kills it when her Ma Rainey explains why she puts such demands on her white manager. Glynn Turman breaks your heart when his Toledo waxes poetically about how the United States is a stew, and black people need to realize they are just the leftovers before they can do a damn thing about anything. And then the coup de grace is Boseman, calling upon another man’s god to actually do something for once, channeling some of the deepest hurt and personal pain I’ve ever seen painted on the screen. One can’t help but wonder, knowing now how terminally ill he was when he filmed this, if he wasn’t asking god “Why?” himself. Interplaying with them all is the seemingly stalwart, but desperately passionate when he’s triggered, Cutler played expertly by Coleman Domingo.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is as advertised. Merging music, stage, and screen to teach us about history and pain in a reflection from the past onto our own deeply troubled times, it’s the very best film as an artistic medium has to offer. It’s timeless. Timely. Essential.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

Widows: What Went Wrong

Steve McQueen’s Widows opens with the tense inter-cutting sequences of a heist gone horribly wrong and shows us in a few propulsive minutes how four women became the widows of the film’s title. It’s a cracker jack set-up to what promises to be an emotionally explosive thriller…but what follows is two hours of slow-burn that goes nowhere thanks to an undercooked screenplay and woefully underdeveloped characters. While McQueen shows us in brilliant brevity how these women became widows, Gillian Flynn’s screenplay gives us no insight into how they became wives of criminals or why their husbands were criminals in the first place. And when the women bond together for a heist, there’s nothing in them (except for Viola Davis’ natural fierceness that comes more from her as a performer than anything evident in Flynn’s limp writing), we have no emotional investment in the outcome or belief that they can pull it off.

Widows is one of those crime thrillers full of endless, clichéd scenes designed to show us how a character is one of three things: tough as hell, corrupt as hell, or trapped in hell. McQueen does his best to eek something out of the story with crisp, perfectly framed shots of environs and exquisite camerawork. Chicago, in a grim visual poetry, arises from the ashes of this junk heap of a story as the best written character. One scene where a corrupt politician (Colin Farrell) is being chauffeured from the bad side of a neighborhood to the posh side in just a few blocks is a minor masterpiece of sociopolitical commentary on gentrification and wealth inequality. Sadly, nothing else in the film elaborates on this in any insightful way. Continue reading

About Southside with You

Southside with You

Shortly after the 2008 Presidential election, South Park aired one of their greatest episodes of all-time, About Last Night. With their usual juvenile yet savvy aplomb, Trey Parker and Matt Stone gleefully eviscerated both sides of the aisle, but their coup de gras was that the entire election was an elaborate jewel heist. Heck, it turned out that Barack and Michele weren’t even married…they were just two crazy kids, who through the course of the heist fell in love. And with DeBussy’s “Clair de Lune” playing over the closing scenes, those two crazy kids decide to give it all…love…marriage…the presidency…a chance.

Even the crudest of satirists could see that the real-life Barack and Michelle were in love. And that love’s first glimmers spark over the course of 84 minutes in writer/director Richard Tanne’s quasi-fictionalized account of one fateful summer day in Chicago in 1989. The compact film is full of small pleasures and big dreams. Small talk and big dialogue.   Continue reading

Of Architecture, Hancock Views, Wrigley and Celebrating the 4th of July in Chicago

Chicago View from Plane Landing

It’s been 16 years since I last went to Chicago.  I’ve changed a lot since then (and so has the Chicago skyline, most notably with the can’t-miss-it Trump Tower), and it’s certainly interesting to return to a city of good memories to create new ones in an entirely different milieu.  Last time there was a boat tour, a comedy show and tons of laughs.  This time there was a boat tour, a comedy show and tons of laughs.  Good people having good times in good places marked both visits.  But this time there were also drinks at the top of the Hancock, a 4th of July Cubs game, fireworks galore (apparently Chicago is intent on trying to recreate the Great Chicago Fire every 4th – never have I seen so many fireworks and we were lucky enough to not only enjoy them at the ballpark but also afterwards when we were treated to a panoramic view from a residential balcony that gave amazing views of the dark city horizon and burbs bursting with bombs), the Art Institute of Chicago, Millenium Park, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Robie House at the University of Chicago.  Apparently my 35 year-old self can run circles around my 19 year-old self in terms of sight-seeing (and many many other things – I’m one of those few who loves being an adult and getting older and wiser).

Here are the requisite shots that hallmarked this trip:

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