Review: ‘Boogie,’ starring Taylor Takahashi, Taylour Paige and Bashar ‘Pop Smoke’ Jackson

March 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Taylor Takahashi and Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson  (shown in center) in “Boogie” (Photo by David Giesbrecht/Focus Features)

“Boogie”

Directed by Eddie Huang

Some language in Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2019 in New York City, the dramatic film “Boogie” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, African American and white) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A Chinese American teenager, who’s in his last year of high school, has conflicts with his parents about his dreams of becoming a professional player in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Culture Audience: “Boogie” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a different type of basketball coming-of-age story, but the movie could be a turnoff because it doesn’t live up to the story’s engaging potential.

Taylor Takahashi and Taylour Paige in “Boogie” (Photo by Nicole Rivelli/Focus Features)

The dramatic film “Boogie” takes a good concept (a Chinese American teenager with goals to play NBA basketball) and squanders it on uneven acting, subpar filmmaking and an obnoxious main character. The movie tries to look gritty and unique. But in the end, it becomes a predictable mush of banality. And unfortunately, “Boogie” panders to some very negative and racist stereotypes of immigrants and urban people of color in the United States.

Written and directed by Eddie Huang, “Boogie” (which takes place in New York City in 2019) has many flaws, but one of the biggest is in the movie’s erratic casting. For starters, almost all the main characters who are supposed to be teenagers in the movie look like they’re in they’re mid-20s or older. It’s distracting and lowers the credibility of this movie, because not once does it look believable that these actors are in the same age group as students in high school.

“Boogie” has a cast that’s mixed with experienced and inexperienced movie actors—and it shows. Taylor Takahashi and the late Bashar Jackson (also known as rapper Pop Smoke), who portray basketball rivals in the movie, make their feature-film debuts in “Boogie,” which is also Huang’s first feature film as a writer/director. Takahashi’s and Jackson’s acting skills are far inferior to those of “Boogie” co-stars Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Taylour Paige, who also portray high-school students in the movie.

Lendeborg and Paige are way ahead in their acting talent, compared to Takhashi and Jackson. This discrepancy results in some awkward-looking moments in the movie where the more talented/experienced actors have to share scenes with those who are less talented/experienced. It doesn’t help that a lot of the dialogue is just plain awful.

Takahashi portrays the movie’s title character—Alfred “Boogie” Chin (whose Chinese first name is Xiao Ming)—as an entitled, arrogant “not as smart as he thinks he is” brat, who often shows disdain for women and willful ignorance of what it takes to be a respectful and respected human being. He is singularly focused on his goal of becoming a basketball player for the NBA. And he doesn’t seem to care much about learning about life beyond basketball, dating, and getting the perks of possibly becoming rich and famous.

It’s no secret that Asians are rare in the NBA, so the filmmakers of “Boogie” used that hook to make it look like the movie is an “against all odds” story. But one of the lousiest things about this movie is that it’s not even convincing in showing any dazzling basketball skills that Boogie supposedly has. There are too many cutaway shots with obvious body doubles. And so, viewers are left wondering what’s so special about Boogie. He’s definitely not the extraordinary basketball player that the filmmakers want people to think he is.

Most of the movie consists of Boogie getting into conflicts with his family. His parents are Chinese immigrants who’ve settled in the New York City neighborhood of Flushing, Queens. It’s shown in the beginning of the movie that in 2001, when his mother was pregnant with Boogie (who is an only child), Boogie’s parents went to see a fortune teller to get advice about their crumbling marriage and to find out the baby’s gender. The fortune teller said that she didn’t know the gender of the child, but she advised these two spouses that if they stay together, “Love will melt the sharpest sword.”

Boogie’s parents did stay together, but they don’t have a very happy marriage. They also have very different approaches to parenting and how Boogie should reach his NBA goals. Boogie has major issues with his mother, which explains why Boogie has misogynistic tendencies. The movie doesn’t even bother to give Boogie’s mother a first name.

Boogie’s father Lawrence Chin (played by Perry Yung) is fairly lenient with Boogie, except when it comes to basketball. Mr. Chin is an ex-con who is obsessed with the idea that the best way for Boogie to get to the NBA is by beating a local teen named Monk (played by Jackson), who is a star basketball player at a rival high school in Brooklyn. Mr. Chin believes that basketball talent scouts will flock to Boogie if Boogie defeats Monk. It sounds very illogical (because it is), but Mr. Chin is fixated on Monk as the biggest obstacle to Boogie’s basketball dreams.

Boogie’s mother Mrs. Chin (played by Pamelyn Chee), who is a homemaker, thinks that Boogie’s best way to the NBA is through a college basketball scholarship, preferably at a Big 10 university. She’s the family’s disciplinarian and planner. But apparently, she’s terrible at finances because Boogie’s parents are heavily in debt, to the point where they’re past due on their utility bills. Even though Boogie’s parents can’t afford to pay for any college tuition, Boogie and his parents don’t want to apply for financial aid. They want a full scholarship for Boogie, or else he doesn’t want to go to any college.

Mr. Chin has spent time in prison for operating an illegal gambling business of sports betting. He’s still making money this way, but he and his brother Jackie (played by “Boogie” writer/director Huang) have been laundering their gambling money by operating a small business as town car drivers. It’s too bad that this movie uses the very tired cliché that a working-class family of color in a big American city has a patriarch who’s a criminal and/or an absentee father. Because Boogie’s father spent time in prison, he’s trying to make up for that lost time with Boogie.

Mr. Chin tells Jackie about their illegal gambling business, “Keep taking bets through the end of the current football season. Then I want to wash my hands of it. We’re in the basketball business now.” And by that, he means that he expects Boogie to make it to the big leagues of the NBA, so that Boogie can become rich and pass on some of the wealth to his parents.

Early on in the movie, Mr. Chin reminds Boogie that Boogie’s parents transferred him to City Prep, Boogie’s current high school, so that Boogie could have a better chance of being discovered by basketball scouts. Boogie is in his last year of high school, so the pressure is on for him to get an opportunity that will eventually take him to the NBA.

At school, it’s unclear what type of grades that Boogie is getting, but it’s clear he’s not getting into any university on an academic scholarship. In his Advanced Placement English class (the only class that he’s seen attending in this movie), Boogie mouths off at the teacher Mr. Richmond (played by Steve Coulter) in a “know it all” way that’s not endearing. It just makes Boogie look like a pompous idiot.

There are plenty of ways that Boogie shows his crude and offensive side outside the classroom. This is what he has to say about real-life NBA basketball player Jeremy Lin: “Jeremy Lin can suck my dick. He’s more model minority Jesus freak than Asian.”

One of the students in the English class is named Eleanor (played by Paige), who is Boogie’s obvious crush. Boogie’s best friend Richie (played by Lendeborg) is in the same class and is on the school basketball team with Boogie. One day after class, Boogie and Richie are at a school gym and ogling Eleanor and her friend Elissa (played by Alexa Mareka), as they do some weightlifting. Here’s the way that Boogie tries to make a move on Eleanor:

Boogie says to her, “Nice pants.” Eleanor replies, “You’ve got a staring problem.” Boogie replies, “You’ve got a nice vagina.” Eleanor angrily says, “Get the fuck out of here with that bullshit! You better respect my mind!” As Eleanor and Elissa walk away, Boogie smirks to Richie, “She wants it.”

Any self-respecting person would be put off by Boogie’s rude sexism. But one of the many things that’s so annoying about this movie is it brushes off and excuses Boogie’s blatant hostility toward women and makes Eleanor fall for him. A dumb movie like this with a jerk as the main character usually likes to show how he can get a love interest who will roll over and be submissive, no how matter how this jerk insults her.

It’s hard to take Eleanor seriously when she acts like an attention-starved girl who’s willing to overlook Boogie’s disrespectful and selfish attitude, just because she wants a boyfriend. Sure, the movie does the very predictable back-and-forth banter between Boogie and Eleanor, in a very weak attempt to make it look like she’s playing hard to get. But in the end, based on the way that Eleanor is written in this movie, she does exactly what Boogie predicts and expects. Any “romance” in this movie looks very fake.

The movie tries to make it look like Boogie is just trying to have the same mindset of a “thug” rapper, since he and so many of his peers admire rappers. But his disrespectful attitude toward women just makes him look pathetic and ignorant. “Boogie” predictably has a hip-hop soundtrack featuring multiple Pop Smoke songs, such as “AP,” “Fashion” and “Welcome to the Party.” (The movie’s end credits have a dedication to Pop Smoke, who was tragically murdered during a home invasion in 2020.) Pop Smoke does not rap in the movie.

Boogie’s horrible personality isn’t shown in just one isolated incident. When Monk deliberately assaults another player on a street basketball court (the other player’s ankle is broken during the attack), Eleanor expresses her disgust with this bullying, but Boogie tells her that Monk did what he had to do to win. Boogie is so arrogant that he calls his other team members “hot trash” to the team leader Coach Hawkins (played by Domenick Lombardozzi), because Boogie thinks the team would be nowhere without him. And later in the movie, Boogie shows how ill-tempered he is during a crucial basketball game at school, and this temper tantrum costs him dearly.

How do we know that Boogie is a legend in his own mind? He’s not getting any scholarship offers. And the feedback from college basketball scouts, including one named Patrick (played by Lenard McKelvey, also known as real-life radio personality Charlamagne Tha God) is that they might want to recruit Boogie, but not on a scholarship. After witnessing Boogie’s on-court tantrum, another college basketball scout questions Boogie’s mental stability. Coach Hawkins also has reservations about Boogie’s temperament and reliability.

If this movie is supposed to be about Asian cultural pride, it has an odd way of showing it, because it makes most of the Asian characters look like self-hating caricatures. There’s a Chinese insult scene of Boogie and Richie going to Manhattan’s Chinatown and Boogie complaining that he almost forgot how much Chinatown smells bad.

Boogie then sneers, “How is Chinatown next to SoHo? These gremlin keepers ain’t learned how to boutique their shit.” (It’s a reference to the 1984 horror movie “Gremlins” about gremlin creatures that are sold in Chinatown.) Imagine if a white person said this very racist and degrading comment. Just because an Asian person says it doesn’t make it okay.

Boogie is an immature twit who doesn’t have much to offer to the world except basketball skills that definitely are not ready for the NBA. His mother is written as a domineering and lazy shrew, while his father is a morally dubious hustler. The only Asian character in the movie who seems to show common sense is someone named Melvin (played by Mike Moh), an acquaintance of Boogie’s mother whom she asks to become Boogie’s manager.

And here’s an example of the movie’s terrible dialogue. Boogie whines to Eleanor about his ethnicity, with no self-awareness that he perpetuates negative stereotypes: “Chinese people would be so much better if this country didn’t reduce us to beef and broccoli.” Eleanor replies, “You could be so much more too.” Boogie then says, “It’s so hard. I feel like a piece of beef surrounded by sprouted greens and MSG.”

So with all of the family drama, ethnic drama and dating drama that are badly written and sometimes poorly acted in “Boogie,” that leaves the basketball scenes to possibly salvage this dreadful movie. But “Boogie” fails to deliver as a thrilling sports movie too. There’s a big showdown at the end that checks all the boxes of predictable and unimaginative clichés of a basketball game filmed for a movie.

There’s also some phony sentimentality thrown into the story, which contradicts the crass and raw tone that the movie was trying to push on the audience for most of the film. “Boogie” looks like it wanted to be a vulgar and tough portrayal of urban life, as well as a sweet family film. You can’t really have it both ways, or else you end up with a movie like “Boogie,” which is a jumbled, fake-looking and shoddily filmed mess.

Focus Features released “Boogie” in U.S. cinemas on March 5, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is March 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman

January 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chadwick Boseman, Dusan Brown, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Viola Davis  and Glynn Turman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Directed by George C. Wolfe

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1927, in Chicago and briefly in Barnesville, Georgia, the dramatic film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A tough-talking blues diva and her rebellious cornet player have conflicts and power struggles with each other, while they both have constant battles with white racism and the emotional scars that this bigotry has left on them.

Culture Audience: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will appeal primarily to August Wilson fans and people interested in well-acted movies about African American experiences.

Glynn Turman, Chadwick Boseman, Michael Potts, and Colman Domingo as Cutler in “May Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” triumphs as one of the rare movies adapted from a celebrated play that can actually claim to be better than the play, thanks to powerhouse performances by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The movie version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is based on August Wilson’s play that debuted on Broadway in 1984, takes place mostly in a small recording studio, but the deep emotional impact and the breadth of social issues experienced and conveyed by the characters go beyond the confines of that studio. The story is set in 1927, but the story’s themes are universal and timeless.

Directed by George C. Wolfe with a screenplay written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” begins in Barnesville, Georgia, where blues singer Ma Rainey (played by Davis) is giving a foot-stomping, rousing performance to an enthralled audience in a tent. She’s sweating profusely, as she does in every scene in the movie, and caught up in the rapture of giving a raw and passionate performance for the adoring crowd.

When she’s off stage, Ma isn’t the fun-loving, “good time gal” that she might appear to be when she’s on stage. Ma is a middle-aged diva who’s feeling the pressure of being considered a “has-been” as her former protégée Bessie Smith is almost certain to surpass Ma in popularity. It’s an ageism problem faced by many entertainers, especially women, who are at the mercy of fickle audiences and industry people who might end up moving on to someone who’s considered younger, more contemporary and more attractive.

Ma has earned the nickname the Mother of the Blues, and she’s not about to give up her reign at the top that easily. She uses her clout and her unique talent as reasons to do and say what she wants, including showing up late, berating her employees, and making people kowtow to her sometimes-unreasonable demands. It’s clear that Ma’s way of asserting her power is to counterbalance the humiliation and pain of racism that she experiences as a black woman in America, where white supremacy was legal in the form of racial segregation and other Jim Crow laws.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” references the Great Migration, a period of time (1916 to 1970) in U.S. history where millions of black people relocated from the states in the South to states in other parts of America. These areas outside of the South were often viewed as presenting better opportunities for people of color, but these areas certainly were not immune to racism. When Ma travels to Chicago for the one-day recording session that’s the majority of this story, it represents her own personal parallel to the Great Migration.

Where Ma goes, drama usually isn’t far behind. Upon arriving in Chicago during a sweltering summer, she gets into a dispute on the street when she’s accused of pushing down a white man. A cop (played by Joshua Harto) who’s called to the scene is inclined to arrest her, but Ma uses her clout, loud voice and her “take no crap” attitude to get the cop to back off.

Ma, who lives openly as a lesbian (as did the real-life Ma Rainey), is traveling by car to the recording studio. Accompanying her are her much-younger lover Dussie Mae (played by Taylour Paige) and Ma’s teenage nephew Sylvester (played by Dussan Brown). As gruff as Ma is to most people in her life, she shows tremendous loyalty to the few people who are closest to her, especially Sylvester.

Dussie Mae is an attractive young woman whose relationship with Ma is fairly new and is more like a “trophy girlfriend” than a soul mate to Ma. Throughout the movie, it’s implied that Dussie Mae is somewhat of a gold digger. Dussie Mae goes through life using her looks and sex appeal to get people to financially support her—not because she’s mean-spirited but because she’s too unsophisticated to doing anything else with her life.

Ma, as usual, is running late on her way to the studio, where she is scheduled to record the song “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” When Ma and her two-person entourage (Dussie Mae and Sylvester) finally get there, Ma takes charge and sometimes gets into subtle and not-so-subtle power struggles with the men who’ve been waiting for her at the studio. These power struggles have many different layers that exemplify issues of gender roles and racial discrimination.

The six men in the recording studio who experience Ma’s mercurial range of emotions during this challenging day are:

  • Levee (played by Boseman), the charismatic, foul-mouthed cornet player who’s the newest and most arrogant member of Ma’s band.
  • Cutler (played by Colman Domingo), the band’s trombone player who is very loyal to Ma and considers himself to be the most experienced and skilled in dealing with her mood swings.
  • Toledo (played by Glynn Turman), the band’s pianist who is the most likely to be the jokester in the group.
  • Slow Drag (played by Michael Potts), the band’s bass player who is the quietest and most laid-back member of the group.
  • Irvin (played by Jeremy Shamos), Ma’s longtime manager who often has to be a peacemaker when she decides on a whim to throw situations into chaos.
  • Sturdyvant (played by Jonny Coyne), the manager of the recording studio who grows increasingly impatient with Ma’s diva antics.

In the scenes in the recording studio, Irvin and Sturdyvant (who are white) are often together in a booth that overlooks the recording room where they can watch through a glass window what’s happening down below with the Ma and the rest of her African American colleagues. Irvin and Sturdyvant usually leave the booth to go into the recording studio when there’s a problem that affects their time and money invested in this recording session. And there are several interruptions to the recording session for this reason.

The higher location of the booth and its separation from the main recording studio room are obvious metaphors of the spoken and unspoken racial barriers that exist between the people in this recording session, where racism is a festering wound that has impacted the characters on a personal and societal level. Ma and her colleagues are all too aware that even though Ma is the star in this room, she still has a subservient role to the white men who control the music industry. It’s a role that she expresses with a lot of emotional pain, bitterness and defiance throughout the story.

At one point in the story Ma says with heavy resentment: “They don’t care care nothin’ about me. All they care about is my voice.” She adds, “If you colored and you can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.” And later in the story, Ma reveals that even though Irvin has been her manager for the past six years, the only time he invited her to his home was so she could perform for his “white friends.”

There are also issues over gender roles that permeate the story. When Ma arrives at the recording studio, she finds out that all the men who’ve been waiting for her have already decided that she will record a new, more upbeat version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” with the arrangement written by Levee. Ma refuses and declares that she is going to record the original version of the song. She also insists that her nephew Sylvester is going to do a short spoken intro to the song, even though he’s a stutterer.

Ma literally and figurately throws her weight around as she has diva tantrum after diva tantrum. At one point, she shouts: “I make more money for this outfit than anyone put together!” And when she finds out that the Coca-Cola that she requested in advance isn’t in the studio, she refuses to start recording until she gets her Coca-Cola.

All of the members of her band are very compliant except for Levee, who constantly challenges Ma’s decisions and tries to assert himself as a visionary musician whom Ma needs if she wants to get more respect for her music. Early on in the story, Tyree tells Cutler: “I ain’t like you, Cutler. I’ve got talent. I know how to play real music, not none of this jug band shit.”

Levee shows flashes of vanity (he brags about his shiny yellow shoes and is aware of how good-looking he is) and hubris (he thinks all of his ideas should be immediately accepted), but underneath that cockiness is someone who’s got deep-seated emotional pain and trauma. During the long stretches of time that the musicians in the band are waiting for Ma, Levee slowly opens up about his past and reveals secrets that explain why he acts the way that he does.

At one point, Levee is teased by the other members of the band when they see Levee acting in a very deferential way to Irvin and Sturdyvant. The band mates try to make Levee feel like he’s an “Uncle Tom,” which triggers Levee into losing his temper and then revealing a defining incident from his past that permanently changed his outlook on life. He tells this story in a harrowing monologue that’s one of the best scenes in the film.

Ma and Levee’s clashes with each other aren’t just about music. An observant Ma notices that Levee has been looking at Dussie Mae in a way that makes it obvious that he’s attracted to her. Dussie Mae flirts back when Ma isn’t around. And it doesn’t take long for Levee to ramp up his sexual advances toward Dussie Mae, even though the other band members warn Levee that Dussie Mae is “Ma’s girl.”

Levee’s disagreements with Ma over her musical direction, as well as Levee not even trying to hide that he’s interested in making moves on Ma’s lover, put him in a precarious situation where he might or might not be fired from the band. As time goes on during the day and Ma goes back and forth about whether or not she’ll complete the recording, Levee is going through his own insecurities and turmoil. At times, he also clashes with Cutler, especially when it’s revealed how Levee feels about God and religious beliefs.

Under the assured direction of Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” not only has a top-notch cast but the movie also excels in costume design, production design and music. The stage/play version of the story takes place in the winter, but the filmmakers made the astute decision to change the season to summer during an oppressive heat wave. It gives the movie more of a “pressure cooker” look and tone that’s an accurate reflection of the simmering tensions that permeate throughout the entire story.

Davis and Boseman give award-worthy performances in this movie that goes beyond personality conflicts and ego posturing. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (which was Boseman’s last movie; he died of colon cancer in August 2020) is also a story of the shared trauma of racism and how even the strongest of souls are tested by this insidious societal cancer. Viewers who are sensitive about hearing racially derogatory names should be warned that the “n” word is said many times in this movie, usually when uttered by Levee.

Even though the movie is called “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the character of Ma has a lot less screen time than Levee does. If Ma is the heart of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” then Levee is the soul. Levee and Boseman’s heartbreaking performance represent anyone who has survived trauma inflicted by other people but struggles with the damage that can be inflicted by self-destruction.

Netflix released “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in select U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2020. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 18, 2020.