The hardships, repressed frustration, and vulnerabilities that come with suffocating under systemic oppression are ever-present in the work of the late, great playwright August Wilson. He intimately understood the experience of Black Americans; the tone and cadence, the mannerisms and use of AAVE (African-American vernacular) in his plays specify that his theatrical experiences are meant for Black audiences. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the third of Wilson’s works to be adapted for the screen, rhythm and blues are the vehicle through which our characters deal with daily exposure to white supremacy.
The film opens with a mesmerizing montage of performances by the “Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). She is in command of the stage and beloved for it, but tension rages between the singer and one of her band members, Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final performance). The trumpeter craves everything Ma has: the art, the spotlight, the applause. The two compete as their bandmates look on, and the forthcoming trouble is palpable.
The following day, the band is scheduled to record a collection of songs in a Chicago studio run by the economical and unhelpful Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). An afternoon of stories, arguments, jokes, and philosophy unfolds amongst the band members before any music is even recorded. Though this is Ma Rainey and Levee’s story, each character in the ensemble is critical to getting that story told. Colman Domingo as trombonist Cutler adds this film to a string of exceptional supporting roles, once again elevating what’s on the page to new heights. Glynn Turman as Toledo, a pianist who ponders race in America and Black masculinity, plays the beats of misapplied and misunderstood knowledge with grace, dispelling and dismissing tension with his natural rhythm. Michael Potts does equally wonderful work with minimal dialogue as bassist Slow Drag; his exasperated expressions are a striking storytelling device.
As Levee, Boseman is multi-layered and electric. So many of his past performances require a sense of regal stillness; here, he stretches muscles in ways we’ve never seen. It’s a joy to watch him play reckless, a character who doesn’t have to contain himself. Levee has a rude yet likeable charm rooted in unresolved childhood trauma, and as the film revolves around his volatile ambition, Boseman rises to the challenge of the spotlight—a performance so full of life and conviction, it’s a devastating reminder we won’t see more of his multifaceted talent. It had not even begun to reach its full potential.
When Ma Rainey arrives with her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), her ego enters a boxing match with Levee’s. Ma is demanding and delays the recording until her needs are met, just as Levee expresses a dangerous interest in Dussie Mae. All this pales in comparison to the enormous task of recording “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a mission that plays more of an antagonizing role than any one character could. In pursuit of a perfect record, the song brings out the worst competitive and divisive urges amongst this group of people.
Ma is uncompromising and abrasive, and Davis is powerful in the role, her presence large and boisterous but still controlled—the character takes over as she voices her struggles. Ma is an absolute diva, and Davis is clearly enjoying the material: Her performance is precise and assured, and her moments of comedic levity land every time. Though Ma’s behavior may read as unlikable, she explains her reasoning in a conversation with Cutler: “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that. And they gon’ treat me the way I want to be treated, no matter how much it hurt ‘em. They back there calling me all kinds of names. Calling me everything but a child of God. But they can’t do nothing else ‘cause they ain’t got what they wanted yet. As soon as they get my voice down on one of them recording machines, then it’s just like I’m a whore. They roll over and put their pants on. They ain’t got no use for me then.”
Ma understands her social standing as a Black woman in the 1920s: She is wanted solely for the entertainment and monetary gain of the white patriarchy. To maintain any semblance of dignity and to simply survive, a harsh demeanor is essential to getting what she deserves. Levee also believes these sentiments are the key to success, but takes a different approach: By playing within the white system while claiming to understand its pitfalls, he thinks he’ll get what he wants. But Levee will learn that for Black people, this worldview does not work in your favor.
Theater adaptations too often feel stilted in transferring the magic of a stage play—few locations, a limiting structure—to film. For the most part, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom makes the crossover. It knows exactly where to open up, and the story feels richer as a result. But at other moments, the film slows down—to match the speed of a character pausing to give background, for example—and the leap doesn’t always land gracefully. However, director George C. Wolfe, a New York theater artist, never gets in the way of Wilson’s words, and makes up for pacing issues with beautifully crafted blocking, staging, and camera movement that creates an intimate, in-the-same-room experience. Each actor balances the grand scale of dialogue written for theater with the intimacy required for cinema, and their larger-than-life performances transcend the screen. Everything, from the almost musical fluidity of the actors’ interactions with the camera to the sumptuous costumes and production design, makes for an invigorating experience.
The film ends on a strong, shocking, and sharply bleak note that crystallizes its philosophy: To move through a world that values what you can do for it and not vice versa weighs heavy on the psyche. Being Black in America is walking a tightrope which, if not tread carefully, will leave you feeling undervalued, stranded, and unforgiven. Hopefully, the film reminds viewers of the beauty and misfortune from which the blues come, and the timeless work of August Wilson that extends beyond Fences. Packed with soulfully poignant performances, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a solid, vibrant, and extravagant work of art.
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