When the August Wilson estate gave Denzel Washington the film rights to his 10-play Century Cycle, he brought them to Netflix Original Films chief Scott Stuber, who signed on to back them all.
The first, Wilson rookie and Public Theatre director George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” will clean up at the Oscars. Even though it’s set in 1920s Chicago, it’s timely in the way that it shows how simmering pain and anguish can explode. Wolfe wisely moved away from winter and leaned into pushing the film’s sweltering heat.
Actors will love Oscar winner Viola Davis (“Fences”) as the gold-toothed, hip-swaying, bosomy, sweat-drenched blues singer of the title, and never-nominated Chadwick Boseman (“Black Panther”) as her restless, go-getter trumpeter: he could follow Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”) and Peter Finch (“Network”) to win a posthumous Oscar.
That narrative will be hard for Academy actors to resist, as Boseman poured his heart into what would be his last performance. Singer Rainey (Davis), trying to hang on to the authority of her stardom, and her ambitious youngest band member Levee (Boseman), are the two driving, opposing forces of the drama.
Based on the real blues star, who emerged from the Georgia tent circuit, unapologetic lesbian Rainey wields her anger like a rapier to get her way on the South Side of Chicago, shielding her band members from opportunistic white men, and making sure they get paid. “They don’t care nothing about me,” she says. “All they want is my voice. They going to treat me the way I want to be treated.”
Said Davis about Rainey at an earlier Netflix press conference, “She recognizes all those elements that completely want to desecrate her power. She’s up for the fight. I love that fight in her.”
Davis worked closely with costume designer Ann Roth to devise the padding for a specific body structure based on Davis’ aunt Joyce. “She was a woman of a certain size, absolutely beautiful,” she said. “I wanted that body. My aunties down south, they had no sense of when their breasts were showing too much. The makeup looked like greasepaint.”
Her youngest musician, Levee, is less controlled than Rainey. He is at a boiling point; his musical talent and frustration are ready to burst out of his body in equal measure. When he’s in sync with his fellow musicians, all is well, but he not only has eyes (and hands) on Rainey’s hot girlfriend (Taylour Paige), but on publishing his own music and forming his own band.
He argues for the virtues of art, while his less naive bandmates stick to basic survival. It takes time to adjust to the theatrical rhythms of the interior dialogue scenes. In the film’s climactic third act, Levee’s ongoing arguments with the band about shared responsibility and God’s will build to a explosive fight between Levee and Cutler (Colman Domingo). “God doesn’t love your ass, he hates you with all the fury in his heart,” Levee screams.
While they were filming, said Domingo at Saturday’s zoom press conference, he saw Boseman hesitate and stop mid-scene. “You were courageous in your sharing and bringing Chadwick through that difficult moment with that scene,” said Glynn Turman, who plays philosophical pianist Toledo.
“We were in it,” said Domingo. “This was the good stuff. Chad turned away, something was happening.” He pressed Boseman to not give up, yelling, “Tell me!” “Then he exploded with all the rage and fury and questions of God’s will.”
The men all embraced and sobbed silently after that scene, Domingo said. “We were trying to collect ourselves, not knowing what was in the room, what was the underpinning of the scene. It was a whisper at first, then it was a roar. That man had this fight in him to the very end. It makes sense in hindsight that he was playing all these kings in rapid succession, as if he didn’t have enough time on this earth.”
“You can have a 50-to-60-year career and never meet a Chadwick in this business,” said Davis.
Other Oscar possibilities include the period film’s cinematography, production design, costumes, and hair and makeup, which means that the film could crack Best Picture. Turman in another year would have a crack at Supporting Actor, but that category is packed. While Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson serve the project well, finally, the Academy voters will consider the movie’s true author to be Wilson.
Also introduced to the media this weekend was Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani’s latest film, “White Tiger” (January 22, 2021, Netflix), a compelling adaptation of his college pal Aravind Adiga’s prize-winning novel, which Bahrani had been tracking for 15 years. This low-profile movie could have used a film festival to create buzz and credibility.
Not unlike Best Picture winners “Slumdog Millionaire” or “Parasite,” this rags-to-riches parable follows smart low-caste villager Balram (newcomer Adarsh Gourav), who convinces his penny-pinching grandmother to back his bid to drive for the family who runs the town. She finances his Drivers Ed with the promise that most of his earnings will return to her.
Soon he’s driving his young boss (Bollywood star Rajkummar Rao) and his American wife (Indian actress Priyanka Chopra) around Delhi and listening to their dreams of launching an internet startup in Bangalore. When his boss winds up dead, Balram steals his bribe money and starts his own company.
In a press conference, Bahrani recognized that his films shared with Adiga “ideas about the rich and poor working class struggle,” he said. “He added a new layer of deep sarcasm and humor. I wanted to bring that tone into the movie, which is about serious matter and big heavy themes. But the book is a fun quick read and I wanted to keep that tone.”
The hope for Netflix and Bahrani is that this story about a man who is trapped and wants to be free will have universal appeal. “It encompasses class, money, health care, the judicial system, racism and the class system,” said Bahrani. “In America, Democracy is not a cure-all. The last four decades show that there’s corruption in democracy; it’s not working; there is a simmering rage. You can feel it in any country in the world. That’s Balram. I hope the movie makes us think we have to do some changing.”
Some Academy folks may respond to this well-made movie, but it could get lost in the shuffle.