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Producers: Denzel Washington. Todd Black and Dany Wolf   Director: George C. Wolfe   Screenplay: Ruben Santiago-Hudson   Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown, Joshua Harto and Quinn VanAntwerp   Distributor: Netflix

Grade: A-

If Denzel Washington does nothing more with the clout his stardom has brought than accomplish his goal of bringing August Wilson’s magisterial Pittsburgh Cycle of plays to the screen, he can consider all the work he’s put into his career well worth it. 

The stage works, also called the Century Cycle because they chronicle a hundred years of black experience in America decade by decade, have rightly become a touchstone of modern drama, and after directing and starring in the first installment in the project, the superb 2016 screen version of  “Fences,” the play written third and set in the 1950s, Washington has turned over the directorial duties for this, the second play written and set in 1927, to George C. Wolfe, who worked with Ruben Santiago-Hudson to adapt it for the screen.  This version changes the original it some ways, excising some of the text, adding a few scenes to relieve the staginess or visualize matters that were relegated to dialogue, and the like.  But it remains true to the work’s theatrical underpinnings—and thankfully, to Wilson’s luminous use of language and extraordinary gift for dramatic power and potent characterization.

The narrative centers on a single day, set here during the summer heat, when Ma Rainey, a historical figure known as the Mother of the Blues, came to a Chicago recording studio with her backup band to lay down tracks for white label owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), who warns her agent Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) to keep his imperious client in line. 

Ma is late in arriving with her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), of course, and when she does show up Irvin will have to bribe a cop to forget a fender-bender her car is involved in.  But she’s preceded by her quartet.  Three are old-timers, trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman).  The fourth is young cornetist Levee (Chadwick Boseman), whose arrogance and ambition lead to clashes with the others, especially Toledo.

Meanwhile Ma’s demands put Sturdyvant on edge and send Irvin scurrying to save the sessions.  Especially taxing is her insistence on using her usual rendition of the title song rather than Levee’s new, more upbeat arrangement, which Sturdyvant had promised the young man would be recorded—as well as her ultimatum that Sylvester deliver the spoken introduction to the song, although he stutters. 

The central theme of the play, and the film, is the exploitation of black artists by whites.  Ma, the wily old veteran, understands how the system works, which is why she acts as she does, getting as much as she can in terms of money and respect until the gig is over and she’s once again tossed aside.  Levee doesn’t: he believes Sturdyvant’s promise that he’ll buy the songs he’s written and record the new band he plans on forming, only to suffer inevitable disappointment that exacerbates his rage over the way he’s been treated since childhood—rage that spills over in his conflict with the other band members, especially Toledo.  He might remind you of Walter Lee Younger, from “A Raisin in the Sun”—another young black man devastated when his hopes of advancement are dashed, as they usually are.  (Sidney Poitier originated that role on stage and film, but Washington took to the boards for the 2014 Broadway revival.)

The film is beautifully made from a technical standpoint.  Mark Ricker’s production design is superb, and special praise must be given to Ann Roth’s costumes, which are exquisite across the board and especially remarkable when it comes to Ma’s elaborate frocks.  The visuals are captured in burnished tones by the cinematography of Tobias Schliessler, who has collaborated with Wolfe and editor Andrew Mondshein to vary the close-ups and ensemble shots to minimize the feeling of staginess.  Of course, music plays an important part, and it’s in the capable hands of Bradford Marsalis.

Still, the essential factor in bringing Wilson’s language to life lies in the acting, and here this production is outstanding.  The supporting players are all excellent, with a particularly strong contribution from Turman as crotchety, garrulous Toledo, whose exchanges with Levee are explosive.

But “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” triumphs in the performances of Davis and Boseman, both of whom deliver powerhouse turns.  Davis makes an amazing Ma Rainey, from her voice, appearance and carriage to her wide spectrum of emotion.  Her default attitude may be one of calculated bravado, but beneath the surface is the recognition of the real attitude that ostensibly subservient whites have toward her, and there are moments when her confidence slips and she seems resigned to the fact that her career is in decline while other performers are in the ascendant.  Davis creates an indelible impression in this multifaceted role.

Still, the film will probably be best remembered as enshrining the final performance of Chadwick Boseman, a fine young actor lost to us far too soon.  Though he looks gaunt and drawn as a result of the illness from which he was quietly suffering, his energy never flags, and he delivers Levee’s tirades with a passionate intensity that rivals anything he’d ever done on screen.  Yet as with Davis’ Ma Rainey, he makes palpable the sense of humiliation and outrage Levee feels when he is dealt with shabbily by those with power over him.  He also carries off the character’s verbal tussles with Toledo, including the apparently minor one over a pair of shoes that leads to a frighteningly abrupt tragedy.  Boseman is mesmerizing, and his swan song as an actor will not soon be forgotten. 

Of course, all of the actors, including Davis and Boseman, are fortunate to have August Wilson’s words to feast upon.  “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a brilliant and insightful piece of theatre, and this splendid screen adaptation is worthy of it in every respect. 


Producers: Paul Young, Nora Twomey, Tomm Moore and Stéphan Roelants   Directors: Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart   Screenplay: Will Collins   Cast: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jon Kenny, John Morton, Nora Twomey,Oliver McGrath, Paul Young and Niamh Moyles   Distributor:  GKIDS and Apple +

Grade: A-

Wolves are certainly a popular commodity onscreen at the moment, what with the recent “100% Wolf” and this week’s “Hunter Hunter,” but this visually extraordinary film from Tomm Moore’s Irish Cartoon Saloon, which previously brought us two marvelously beautiful, offbeat animated pictures, “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea,” offers a take on them that differs from anything seen before. 

The fantastical story, written by Will Collins, draws on some rewritten history and Celtic folklore.  It’s set in the mid-seventeenth century, when the English Lord Protector, the fanatical Oliver Cromwell (voiced by Simon McBurney), was subjugating Ireland to his dogmatic will.  Determined to wipe out both popery and paganism, he finds himself stymied in Kilkenny by a mystical power in the forest near the town—a pack of wolves led by Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker), a feral girl who is a wolfwalker—a human who transforms into a wolf while her body sleeps, and is possessed of extraordinary healing powers.  Mebh is awaiting the return of her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who left in her wolf form to seek a new home but whose human body remains asleep in the cave while her spirit remains absent, perhaps unable for some reason to make her way back.       

Cromwell decides that the wolf pack must be exterminated at all costs, and hands the assignment to his master hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), whose daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is a puckish tomboy who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps rather than perform the scullery duties assigned her.  So she goes off to the forest accompanied by her faithful pet, a bird called Merlin, and encounters Mebh, with whom she ultimately bonds in sisterly comradeship—and in nature, since before long she has become a wolfwalker too, despite her father’s duty to annihilate the pack.

Eventually the Lord Protector, furious over Bill’s incompetence, undertakes to destroy the wolves himself and marches out of Kilkenny with his army, intent on burning down the forest entirely and all the animals with it.  Meanwhile Robyn has discovered that he has been holding Moll’s spirit captive in his dungeon, and not only frees her but returns to the forest to stand with the wolves against the Protector’s assault.  In the event Bill will have to decide which side he stands on.

Collins has had to toy with the historical record in crafting his narrative, but the result is so satisfying that it would be churlish to complain.  In terms of plot “Wolfwalkers” is as cunning as its predecessors were, and will engage both children and adults.

But what sets the film apart, of course, is the wondrous animation, which, as was the case with Cartoon Saloon’s previous films, represents the continuing irresistibility of hand-drawn 2D work even as the industry has by and large embraced computer-dominated artwork. 

That isn’t to say that all old-fashioned animation is as eye-catching as this, or even that Moore doesn’t make use of computer-assisted methods to enhance the visuals.  But the imagination and inventiveness of what’s on display here are truly remarkable.  Of particular note is the visual differentiation between the human and wolf worlds, with the former given an angular look reminiscent of darkly colored woodblock images, while the latter is all swirling masses of vibrancy and shimmering luster.  Even the character drawing is affected, with the Protector and his soldiers bearing  square-like frames while the wolves, and especially the wolfwalkers, have the supple appearance of splashes of watercolor.  The backgrounds are similarly rendered in contrasting styles.  And while the voice work isn’t equally distinctive, it’s uniformly excellent, though one might appreciate the subtitles in the streaming version. 

Obviously one must credit the technical crew—not merely the small army of animators but directors Moore and Ross Stewart, who also served as art directors and production designers along with Maria Pareja, as well as editors Richard Cody, Darren Holmes and Darragh Byrne.  There’s also a lovely Celtic-inflected but subtle music score by  Bruno Coulais and Kila, as well as occasional songs featuring Aurora, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Sophia Coulais and Camille Joutard. 

This is yet another masterful visual achievement from Cartoon Saloon, as well as a simply enchanting story, beautifully told.