Thursday Murder Club: Seniors Rule



By Richard Osman

Viking Press, 400 pages

★★★★ ½ 




Richard Osman is a game show host in Britain. I assume he’s an amusing one because his novel The Thursday Murder Club is witty, wicked fun. We are told never to judge a book by its cover and the same applies to people. It’s mostly set at Coopers Chase, a rest home filled with folks in their 60s, 70s, and above who gather weekly to discuss murders, be they real or imaginary cases.  


A bunch of old codgers wiling away their days before the Reaper calls? Don’t be so sure. Coopers Chase also has residents who were once smart cookies and haven’t yet gone to crumb. They make sure unwanted interlopers don’t wander into their discussions by reserving a room as a gathering to appreciate Japanese opera! When not debating the fine art of homicide, several of them like to drink gin and tonics—from a can—or discuss the silliness of vegetarianism at a restaurant called Anything with a Pulse. In the best tradition of British eccentrics, they seldom resist whinging or judging. Joyce, a retired nurse, narrates much of the book and wears her opinions on her sleeve. When her Murder Club compatriot Bernard, a former petrochemical professor, is on his way to breakfast, she writes in her diary: “What he has for breakfast I don’t know, but who really knows what anyone has for breakfast? I usually have tea and toast with the local radio. I know some people have fruit, don’t they? I don’t know when that came into being, but it’s not for me.”


You know you’re in for a funny book when a character is more shocked by fruit for breakfast than gory crime. As you might anticipate, the club will get its chance to help solve an actual murder, something that prompts another member, Elizabeth, to remark, “So we were all witnesses to a murder. Which, needless to say, is wonderful.” She’s the most mysterious member of the senior set, one who knows so much about all things dodgy that we suspect she may have worked with British intelligence in her salad days. There’s also Ron, once a tough labor union boss, and Ibrahim, a former psychiatrist. Spouses and children also appear, the latter prone to wondering why their parents can’t act their age. Short answer: When you live in a place where people become senile or die on a regular basis, they are of an enjoy-it-while-you-still-have-it mindset.


They share the belief that the home’s director, Tony, is oily and untrustworthy. None shed a tear when he’s bludgeoned to death, but they thrill to an opportunity to solve the crime. Another delight of the novel is how able-bodied professionals underestimate their elders. This includes local law enforcement, though the geezers find a reluctant ally in Donna DeFreitas, a police officer whom they met when she gave a talk at Coopers Chase.


The novel’s humor is supplemented by a twisty plot in which all manner of suspicious and odd people drop in: a priest (or maybe not), a Polish builder, a reckless SUV driver, an ex-boxer/perhaps violent criminal (Ron’s son), a Cypriot gym owner, a thug-turned-florist, and a land developer so sleazy he makes Tony seem like a saint. (He’s reading a Richard Branson book titled Screw It, Let’s Do It, Lessons in Business and Life. That’s not a real title, but it could be.)


Like most mystery novels, this one has a barrelful of red herrings and long-buried secrets that leak from the barrel’s bottom. Osman strikes a nice balance in presenting his senescent investigators as a charming mix of being well-connected, logical, and perceptive, yet also out of touch with recent developments. When told that some of the answers she seeks might be lurking on the dark web Elizabeth asks, “And how would I go about getting on the dark web?” Ibrahim replies, “Well, I’m guessing, but if it were me, the first thing I would do would be buy a computer. Perhaps go from there.”


Will the elders and the young ‘uns solve the local crime wave? Of course, it’s a mystery novel. But I loved how Osman reminded us not to assume things about seniors, yet also interjected their feelings of loss and mortality. Maybe the only sensible recourse is to laugh your way to life’s final chapter.


Rob Weir




Dear Committee Members an Arch Book



By Julie Schumacher

Doubleday, 182 pages.





Who’s been keeping this amazing book from me? Dear Committee Members is the funniest book I’ve read on academe since Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Julie Schumacher, a professor of Creative Fiction and English at the University of Minnesota, won the 2015 Thurber Prize for American Humor and I can’t imagine the vote was close.


Schumacher’s novel–more of a novella– is everything one could want in a parody of the professoriate: literate, arch, and oozing vengeance, though you don’t need to have any university experience to love this book. Her alter ego, Professor Jayson “Jay” Fitger of fictional Payne University, says exactly what he thinks. His weapon of choice is the LOR (letter of recommendation) and he’s obviously written way too many.


Fitger is a divorced, aging horndog whose infidelities with grad students and colleagues are the reason he’s single. His ex-wife Janet, now in charge of law school admissions, only submits to have lunch with him twice a year– on the date of their wedding and the anniversary of their divorce. Jay is vain and uses his erudition and enormous vocabulary to club perceived inferiors into submission Neanderthal-style. Payne’s English department is so dysfunctional that everyone in it–except for its invisible adjuncts–despise each other with such fervor that Ted, a member of the sociology department, is appointed to chair it. Ted is so anxious to exit that viper pit that he suggests Jay should chair, but Fitger knows he’s burned more bridges than there are rivers to cross.


Jay’s office is in a building undergoing an expensive, messy overhaul, but for the economics department, which sees no need to have any humanities. Fitger loathes econ with poison pen, that implement appropriate for someone who refuses to fill out online forms. Only the English department’s IT assistant, Duffy Napp, comes in for more scorn and you can imagine what Fitger does with a name like that! He’s over the moon when Napp applies for another job and happily writes a LOR. Ahh, but there’s the rub. Here’s an excerpt:


Colleagues have warned me that the departure of ... our only remaining tech help employee, will leave us in darkness. I am ready. I have girded my loins and dispatched a secular prayer in the hope that ... a former mason or carpenter or salesman – someone over the age of 25 – is it this very moment being retrained in the subtle art of the computer and will ... refrain from sending text messages or videos of costumed dogs.... I can almost imagine it: a person who would speak in full sentences – perhaps a person raised by a Hutterite grandparent on a working farm. As for Mr. Napp: you are welcome to him.


Dear Committee Members is structured as a series of LORs, memos, and communiques. Fitger uses them to amuse himself and discharge frustration. He writes one LOR after another, each stuffed with asides, innuendo, oversharing, and acidic commentary. He’s the sort who is likely to detour into an admission that Janet might have a point that one of his novels is a soft porn version of their former sex life. Just what every undergrad applying for a scholarship or seeking a job reference needs, right? He’s weird even when trying to make the case for one of his grad student fiction writers, though it’s usually at expense of another student whose writing Fitger finds preposterous and begging for lampoon.


If the book sounds mean-spirited and nasty, rest assured it’s not. Dear Committee Members is like a speech you compose in your head to suggest your boss commit a biologically impossible act. Of course, you never actually say those things, but Fitger does! As we read–more like rip through–one LOR after another, you’ll find yourself splitting a gut in laughter. Who wouldn’t like to tell that person you barely know and begs you for a LOR that insofar as you know, their major accomplishment is that they don’t slobber in public? This novel will make you guffaw with such gusto that you’ll double over when trying to read it aloud to another.


The Napp LOR isn’t even come close to being the funniest in the book; I quoted it because I’m one of many who find IT people infuriating. Dear Committee Members is so quirky and offbeat that it could have been subtitled Id Unchained. But I suspect all of us have a bit of Jay Fitger lurking within.   


Rob Weir


PS: If you’re one of my former students, rest assured I never wrote a LOR like the ones in this book.


The USA: Hurtling Toward Dissolution


Do you think the street upheavals of the 1960s were bad? You ain’t seen nothing yet. It is patently obvious that the fractures within the United States are far deeper than red states versus blues states on Election Night. You can wave flags and chant “USA! USA!” at international sporting events all you want, but that will not change the reality that Americans simply don’t like each other very much.


I’m one of them. Even though National Hockey League team rosters are filled with Canadians, Czechs, Finns, Latvians, Russians, and Swedes, I want Colorado to wipe out Florida in the Stanley Cup because ... screw Florida. I don’t watch football because ... screw that redneck sport. I want Scotland to seize Trump’s golf course by eminent domain and would love to see Black athletes refuse to play in Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, and other such sanctimonious but morally bankrupt states.


There simply is no such place as the “United” States. We have a rogue party (Republicans), an inept one (Democrats), and nine justices whose institution needs to be renamed the Extreme Court. The right to choose is gone. Ditto the right of states to demand that industries must clean up their environmental messes. Businesses and forked-tongued ministers have more rights than women. The wall between religion and state has crumbled and demagogic lunatics sandbagged the war against Covid. Just today the Extreme Court took away the right of New York State to regulate who can carry firearms in public. Got that? In the wake of obscene murders of school children, police shootings of unarmed citizens, a massacre in Buffalo, and racists gunning down immigrants and people of color, the Extreme Court made it easier for angry white dudes to carry guns.


What’s it going to be, America, reason or fire? If you think stalking Justice Kavanaugh was a one-off, you’re wrong. So far violence has mostly been the domain of the right, but this will not last. You can only push people so far before they say, “Screw prayers, Teddy bears, and liberals with petitions; I’m out for revenge.” Courtesy of the Extreme Court they can arm themselves with assault rifles and enough ammo to invade Arkansas. It’s just a matter of time until a Catholic church is torched, an Extreme Court justice is assassinated, or a certain ex-president whose hatred and greed are larger than his penis is gunned down.


I don’t advocate that. I’m a Quaker who has never touched a firearm and never will. I don’t think violence solves a bloody thing, but tell that to those being trampled down by rich overlords and plutocrats. As a certain Pulitzer Prize-winning poet once wrote, “You don’t need to a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Prep yourself for movements to break up the nation, some of which will be political and many of which will be violent. Get ready for Chicago 1968: The Sequel.


I’m a senior citizen now, so the dissolution of America may not happen in my lifetime, but the process is inexorably underway. We’re already an afterthought everywhere in Europe except NATO and even it loathes taking marching orders from Washington. It speaks volumes that Trumpinistas have more credibility in Beijing, Moscow, and Riyadh than in Berlin, Copenhagen, Ottawa, Paris, Tokyo, or the entire continent of Africa.


As America disintegrates, the question becomes whether it will happen by mutual agreement or bloodshed. Is there anything that can save us? I see one possible way out. It’s time to hoist the right on its own petard and embrace, of all things, states’ rights. The USA needs to adopt a Canadian-style confederation model and give states the right to “opt out” of laws deemed contrary to its values. This has happened for the political right; now it’s time for the left to seize upon the same tactic.


There is precedent. When the Supreme Court told President Andrew Jackson that Indian removal was unlawful, he ignored it and told the court it could not enforce its own ruling. Massachusetts should follow suit and tell the Extreme Court that reproductive rights will stand in the Commonwealth. New York State should do the same with the gun laws the Extreme Court struck down earlier today. New England would be free to ignore the Interstate Commerce Act and refuse all goods coming from polluting states. Before you assert that no one would care, understand that California, Oregon, and Washington would stand with us. Texas brags it could go its own way, but I can tell you that if California ever chose that route and withheld its federal taxes, the American house of sand would collapse. Add Illinois, New York, and a few others to that list and it’s game, set, match.


The sooner we stop pretending we are “united,” the sooner civility will resume. Opt-out practices can save enough of the USA to allow for cooperation on federal taxes, defense (not offense!) spending, trade agreements, and postal services. That is, by the way, about all that affected the average American citizen before the Civil War. The Bill of Rights now lies in tatters and, as I see it, the only way it can be preserved is to allow it thrive in enclaves that care about it. Your choice: opt out or hunker down.




Rita Hayworth Sizzles in Gilda


GILDA (1946)

Directed by Charles Vidor

Columbia Pictures, 110 minutes, Not Rated





Gilda is an American classic and a film in which the costume designer (Jean Louis) upstaged the director. You’ll see it billed as film noir, romance, drama, and feminist. A lot of movie mutts don’t work, but Gilda does.


Gilda was released seven months after atomic bombs were dropped upon Japan. The public needed a more positive bombshell and it got Rita Hayworth. Gilda brings to mind a grittier version of Casablanca (1942), with the illicit gambling operations of Buenos Aires substituting for the look-the-other-way attitudes of Morocco. Both cities were also destinations for Nazis and ex-Nazis pretending they were never Nazis.


A different sort of rogue opens the movie. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is an American drifter trying his luck at craps, though luck is subjective when you’re shooting with loaded dice. Johnny’s good at hiding how he cheats but not at disguising the appearance of chicanery. Had a well-dressed gentleman not appeared before Johnny was robbed and stabbed, his Argentinian sojourn would have been a short one. Not that he learns his lesson. In better clothing he tries to grift a well-appointed (though illegal) casino and its owner knows exactly how he’s cheating.


That owner is the very man who saved Johnny’s hide, Balin Mundson (George Macready). Instead of having Johnny thrashed, Balin hires him to spot other con artists. Before you can say “no more bets,” Johnny is Balin’s righthand man and has settled into an agreeable lifestyle–good pay, a bit of thuggery, fine clothes, smooth booze….


But Johnny is glum when Balin returns from a trip with a wife he acquired after a whirlwind romance: Gilda (Hayworth). She’s a knockout, but Johnny takes an instant dislike to her and the feeling is mutual. That’s because the two have sparred before and parted with acrimony as passionate as their fling had once been. Gilda’s not above blackmailing Johnny to do her biding in exchange for not spilling the beans on their shared past.


Johnny squirms when Balin assigns him the task of catering to Gilda’s wishes when he’s busy or out of town. She’s not the sort who wants to visit the zoo. Gilda steps out with every eligible man in Buenos Aires and a few ineligible ones. Johnny cleans up her messes and keeps them away from Balin’s ears. Johnny really hates her. Yeah, right; like anyone could who sees her wearing the most famous strapless gown in Hollywood history and slinking her way across the room cooing “Put the Blame on Mame.” (Well, Anita Lewis actually did the singing, but never mind!) You know it’s just a matter of time until she and Johnny are skipping the light fandango together.


What’s up with Balin? Who is he and who was he? The dramatic portion of the film hinges on things such as a plane crash, a safe, German thugs, a plane crash, a wisecracking rest room attendant known as Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), a detective named Obregon (Joseph Calleia), and tungsten. (Yes, I said tungsten.)


Objectively, critics of the day who complained that the film’s “happy” ending cheapened it had a point. There are other holes as well. Balin’s fate makes sense, but those of Gilda and Johnny are akin to Johnny’s dice, not on the level of objective logic. Nor does the romance and forgiveness wash given that it’s set up by sadistic entrapment and psychological torture. There’s also the matter that the Hollywood moral code of the day was such that what you see cannot be what you really get.


Given the setup and strictures, Gilda could have been a well-dressed mess, but the Ford-Hayworth-Macready triangle sizzles with such heat that plot and logic holes only appear after we’ve gorged ourselves on intrigue, Geray’s delicious comic relief, and Rita Hayworth. It may not be PC to say it, but Hayworth was one sexy lady, a Marilyn Monroe with brains. When she’s on the screen, it’s impossible to avert the eyes. Kudos to Glenn Ford for making us believe anyone could ever despise her.


Blame the Zeitgeist for the parts that don’t gel. Gilda came out in that seam in which World War II’s reckoning was in progress and the Cold War had not yet dawned. Neither had third-wave feminism, I hasten to add, so is it okay to mention that Rita Hayworth was ravishing?


Rob Weir


Juneteenth Reality and Myth


 The first known Juneteenth happened in 1866!


Today is Juneteenth, a long overdue holiday. Anyone who disagrees with celebrating the end of slavery simply needs to crawl under a rock and die. The enslaved were not “servants” as Texas officials would have it. Slavery was a barbaric institution that subjected millions to miseries that made mockery of the Christian faith* enslavers professed to uphold.


There is, though, a lot of misunderstanding about Juneteenth. Here are two cases:


1. Juneteenth commemorates when Lincoln freed the slaves.


Nope! Two popular misconceptions swirl around President Lincoln. The first is that he freed slaves with the September 22, 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. The kicker is its qualifier:


“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free...”


Lincoln transformed the conflict from a war to preserve the Union to one that also promised freedom to the enslaved but only in areas still “in rebellion.” It did not include four Union states–Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri–that maintained slavery throughout the Civil War (1861-65). Lincoln’s main objective was to dissuade Britain from supporting the Confederacy and thus freed thousands, not millions. (How do you enforce emancipation in areas “under rebellion?”) In theory, had the Confederacy surrendered on December 31, 1863, no more slaves would have gained freedom.


Nor does Juneteenth celebrate the passage of the 13th Amendment, which legally ended slavery on December 6, 1865. Lincoln ramrodded it through Congress by getting the House of Representatives to pass it before new members were seated, or it wouldn’t have passed. (The Senate accepted it in April 1865, just one week before Lincoln was assassinated.)


Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, was when General Gordon Granger told the enslaved of Texas they were free. That wasn’t technically true. Under the Constitution, ¾ of the states must accept an amendment before it is ratified. That was nearly six months away.


 2. The enslaved freed themselves.


This is a fashionable belief, but it obscures. It’s an important factor but not the only one. To be certain, Black abolitionists–many of them, not just the handful whose names get into history books–convinced numerous Whites to oppose slavery. Frederick Douglass famously persuaded Lincoln to repudiate his racism and support abolition. Likewise, many of the enslaved ran way or took up arms against their masters.


Those who fled slavery’s yoke before the Civil War were unspeakably brave. Estimates hold that about 100,000 made their way to (relatively) safe havens such as Canada, Ohio, and the Northeast. Yet, nearly four million people were held in bondage in 1861. Southern breeding programs were more than capable of replacing runaways. Consider that after 1808 it was illegal to import slaves from abroad. Some were smuggled in but by the time the war began, nearly all enslaved were African-Americans, not Africans. Most were descended from the  388,000 pre-1808 arrivals. 

Let's be careful not to fall prey to reductionist thinking. Christopher Simon Bonner, for instance, credits the hundreds of thousands enslaved folks who made their way to Union lines during the Civil War (1861-65). True, but it presupposes there were Union lines to which they could flee. Slavery would not have ended in 1865 without the war. 


Slavery’s demise involved multiple factors, including:


·       Quakers who first took up abolitionism and inspired others to do so.

·       Northern legislatures that systematically abolished slavery. In 1820, 11 of the nation’s 23 states had done so; by 1860, 19 of 34.

·       A failure of national politicians to resolve the slavery question led to compromises that hardened pro- and anti-slavery activists.

·       So too did Southern overreaction to Northern abolitionism. (FYI/Ten of the first 15 presidents held slaves and just two opposed the practice.)

·       President Andrew Jackson’s gag rule sought to ban discussion of slavery but increased focus upon it.

·       Southern demands for expansionism that would have increased slavery’s reach gave rise to anti-slavery political parties and factions.

·       Religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) cast slavery as a sin.

·       The passage of the very unpopular Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 accelerated Black and White  resistance in the North. (Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852; John Brown’s assault on Harpers Ferry occurred in 1859.)

·       Lincoln proved willing to continue the war despite opposition to making emancipation a major objective. Black troops fought to defend freedom's cause.

 Let us celebrate Juneteenth and take stock of White privilege, but do so without misremembering or romanticizing the ugly past. Sadly, postwar Reconstruction did not successfully protect Black freedom. That is a tragedy whose resolution would warrant another holiday. 


Rob Weir


* Muslims also engaged in selling of African slaves.


Bel Canto: The Movie


BEL CANTO (2018)

Directed by Paul Weitz

Screen Media Films, 102 minutes, Unrated (some violence, adult situations)





Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A Japanese businessman, a translator, a priest, and an opera singer walk into a mansion....


Bel Canto is based on Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel. If you didn’t know a movie had been made of it, join the throng. At a crucial moment, opera megastar Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore) is commanded to sing from a balcony ringed by gunmen. She is told that no one will shoot her and quips, “Are you sure? Not everyone loves opera.”


That was apparently the case of audiences, such as they were. Bel Canto netted just $350k in ticket sales and scored just 5.4/10 on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s probably the best film that could have been made from Patchett’s rich book, but Roxane’s question is pertinent. Moore’s vocals were voiced by Renée Fleming, opera’s reigning queen soprano, but it wasn’t enough to lift the movie to jeweled levels. I’m not an opera fan either, but Patchett’s novel made me care. The movie scores more for its drama and romance than the music.


Patchett’s fictional tale is loosely based on a 1996 hostage standoff in Lima, Peru, in which Túpac Amaru rebels took over the Japanese embassy for 126 days. In the film, it’s a mere month, the South American nation is unnamed, and various details are changed. One of the film’s weaknesses, though, is that we have very little sense of how much time has passed. That’s curious as it could/should have been easily resolved in the editing process.


The hostage-takers are not doctrine-spouting Maoists. They speak of workers and comrades, but many of them admire high culture and are either literate or wish to be. They are also young, ideologically vague, and surprisingly gentle for gun-toting sloganeers. They break into the vice president’s mansion with the intention of kidnapping the nation’s president (a knockoff of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori). He, however, is a no-show because he stayed home to watch his favorite television program–he’s not an opera fan either–rather than rub elbows with Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe). His functionaries have already done salted a trade deal by securing Coss to sing for Hoskawa’s birthday. There’s not much left for the frustrated revolutionaries to do except release the sick, children, and all the women except Coss, their most prominent bargaining chip.  


There are other key individuals inside, including multilingual translator Gen (Ryo Kase), a French ambassador (Christopher Lambert), and a Russian trader (Olek Krupa). The rebels are led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta), who presides over a band of cherubs in fatigues. Among them Carmen, an illiterate Mayan lass who wants to learn to read, speak, and write Spanish and English. The hostage negotiator is Joachim Messner (Sebastian Koch), a hardened Swiss Red Cross inermediary.


What unfolds is a series of improbable romances, begrudging mutual respect, and we’re-all-in-this-together bonding over water, food, music, chess, soccer, opera, and shared humanity. Ultimately Bel Canto raises questions of whose violence is more justifiable (if any at all). Both flag-waving patriots and ideologues might find the script unpalatable, but Bel Canto delivers us somewhere near the dictum attributed to Gandhi: “An eye for an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”


The acting in Bel Canto is decent, even when the script logic falters. Watanabe stands out as an honorable man who has too long buried that aspect of himself. Kase also delivers in that we never quite know his true motives, and it’s hard not to love Coroy, an innocent mite swallowed by forces much bigger than she. That’s also true of most of the revolutionaries, a warning of how glib it can be to apply cavalierly the label "terrorist." Koch is also superb as a fearless and intense negotiator who has seen too much to expect happy endings. Moore lip synchs well, though she sometimes forgets she’s supposed to be a diva and adopts mannerism more in keeping with a movie starlet.


Should you give Bel Canto a chance? Yes, but with reduced expectations. The film needed to be longer to allow for more exposition. Watch it, but if you’ve not already done so, read Patchett’s novel. It will show you what was left out and will make you wonder why someone hasn’t previously told you to read it. Someone just has.


Rob Weir

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Features Brilliant Acting




Directed by George C. Wolfe

Netflix, 94 minutes, R (language, sexual situations)





Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom* began life as a 1982 play from August Wilson, so it’s only fair that the slightly altered movie version was directed by Tony Award-winning George C. Wolfe. If you’re looking for something that is perhaps unfair, Chadwick Boseman lost out on a Best Acting Oscar for his last film. (For the record, I too would have voted for Anthony Hopkins’ astonishing turn in The Father.)


Filmed plays generally don’t impress Academy Award voters. Ma Rainey’s got five nominations but did not carry off any of the major awards. Ironically it won for costume design and makeup/hairstyling, the most “cinematic” elements in what is essentially a filmed stage performance. It does, however, escape the claustrophobic feel many plays succumb to on the screen. That’s because Wolfe zoomed the cameras in tight to capture the intense expressiveness of the actors in ways that could have easily been lost live for those sitting in the cheap(er) seats.


The tale–most of which is fictionalized–takes place on a single day in Chicago: July 2, 1927. Rainey (Viola Davis) was at the height of her powers as the “Mother of the Blues.” This gave her more leverage than most Black women had (though nothing like we see in the film). Rainey is presented as a Black prima donna who could toy with White men. She shows up for a recording session at the Paramount on her time, not the scheduled one, and when her White manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) meekly tries to nudge her along, she tells him how things will go down. And lord help studio head Johnny Coyne (Mel Sturdyvant) when he pushes hard; Ma pushes harder. You name the shot and Ma takes it, be it sending out for Coca-Colas she gluttonously chugs, dictating arrangements, or commanding that the spoken intro to a song be delivered by her stuttering nephew no matter how many takes are necessary.


Still, Ma knows there are limits, something older bandmates Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Dawg (Michael Potts) also understand. Chicago wasn’t the Deep South, but it was just eight years removed from one of the 20th century’s worst race riots. Danger comes via the two whelps in the ensemble, the fetching Dussie Mae and the high-strung Levee Green (Boseman). Dussie, a character based loosely on Bessie Smith, is sexually alluring and seeks to parlay that into advancing herself, be it through some lesbian-charged flirtations with Ma or playing hard-but-not-too-hard-to-get with Levee.


Levee is the script’s most volatile character. He knows about white violence but his ego constantly trips his common sense. He pays no heed to warnings that Whites only kowtow when money is on the line. Levee thinks he doesn’t need the band or Ma. After all, Coyne has “promised” him Ma will do one of his arrangements and will probably buy several of his compositions. As it says in the Book of Proverbs, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

Both Davis and Boseman are wonderful in the film. Davis is nearly unrecognizable as Ma, whom she presents as obese and sweaty with bad makeup and teeth. Yet she’s so in charge behind a mic that you’d never know that Maxayn Lewis actually did the vocals. And when her Ma is angry, the glare alone could melt the paint from the walls.


Boseman’s performance reminds us of what was lost when cancer took him at age 43. We see early on that’s he’s so hotwired he will self-combust, yet the conflagration is even more infernal than imagined. (That is, unless one has seen other August Wilson plays.) Boseman also walked a sags-in-the-middle tightrope between a talented musician and a naif street punk. In neither role does he see there is no net underfoot.


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a powerful viewing experience. Remember that most of the story is invented, as are all of the characters except Rainey and aforementioned Bessie Smith(ish) stand-in. You can learn more about the real Ma Rainey on Wikipedia than you can from the film. Wolfe and producer Denzel Washington aimed at neither a biopic nor historical dramatization. Instead, the goal is to explore Black characters along the margins of a three-ringed Venn diagram where talent, moxie, and race overlap. The survivors know when to step away from the edges and retreat to safety; the victims do not. Even Rainey erred; she failed to recognize that her popularity would wane after 1927.


Rob Weir


The black bottom was an exuberant Jazz Age dance. I don’t know if Wilson intended a double entendre.