There’s no reason to stop this August Wilson train from rolling. As the Wilson estate has given producer Denzel Washington the rights to all ten of the acclaimed author’s plays, the amount of black acting and filmmaking talent on display has been nothing less than impressive. It was the case with 2016’s Fences, and it is certainly the case with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the second cinematic adaptation of a Wilson play. Matching performances with the power of the blues, this look at black culture through a particular lens makes for a dramatic and tense piece of work that is also lively, colorful, and a terrific showcase for Chadwick Boseman in his final performance.
Set largely in a recording studio, on a hot day, in 1920s Chicago, the story revolves around a band of black musicians waiting on the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), to show up and record her songs. Ma has her own issues, including her battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music. Meanwhile, the ambitious and ego-driven trumpeter Levee (Boseman) has an eye on two things – striking out on his own and hitting on Ma’s girlfriend. These contained activities lead to verbal sparring, arguments, and more, as the various truths about each of these characters’ lives begin to surface.
Right away, it was hard not to notice how striking the imagery of this film is throughout. While the power of Wilson’s words is delivered with all the wit and attitude required, director George C. Wolfe makes a full effort in presenting this main setting as best he can. While the surroundings range from the drab, rundown practice room for the band to the more radiant recording space, we see the brown brick and mortar environment contrast with the costumes on display. Ma, of course, thinks highly enough of herself to wear an elaborate dress, while Levee arrives with brand-new yellow shoes to help himself standout. Through this all, the camera knows where to pick up with these characters and keep them from fading into the background.
As a play adapted for the screen, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom succeeds in riding that fine line between justifying the transition while holding onto the elements that make that format unique. Yes, filming this story means appropriating stage directions for the sake of something perhaps less organic when it comes to the making of this movie. However, while the Broadway versions of this work will always have their place, watching a cinematic version means watching other interesting choices made that could only be portrayed in this manner. Having the eye of cinematographer Tobias A. Schlliessler and the strong editing work from Andrew Mondshein does well to find all the angles and other great ways to engage the actors in their performances, whether delivering on monologues or reacting to said stories.
Unsurprisingly, the actors come in and deliver electrifying work, which brings this whole film together. There’s no shortage of great parts to be found in a film with a small scale in terms of physical location. However, there is plenty to grasp. The characters get into verbal battles related to class, race, music, and religion. Having a cast fired up and ready to dive into this material is the makings of some indelible performances.
As noted, this is Boseman’s final on-screen performance, having died following a private battle with cancer in August 2020. Having given only so many performances, yet already bringing a commanding presence to the screen in some key roles, watching his work as Levee was just the latest example of how great the actor could be. While it is unfortunate that Boseman will no longer be able to provide audiences with assured, deep performances, his work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is truly fantastic.
Boseman owns the role of a man with obvious talent and a high self-opinion to go with it. Levee carries himself with pride, daring to engage the other musicians, as well as Ma, knowing those battles won’t go over easy. When it comes time to dig in, we see Boseman’s thought process, as he channels various amounts of anger and frustration that go along with his desires to prove himself to everyone and show off while doing it. It’s complicated work that sits right in line with the film’s other lead performance.
As Ma, Davis shines brightly as well. Working with elaborate makeup and costuming that transforms her into a person who was both bigger and larger than life in her presence, Davis has a lot of material to sink into. While not a biopic, so much of what anyone needs to know about Ma Rainey is delivered in the little setup we have with her.
Ma is a wealthy black woman, who says and does what she wants, understands the pull she has over people thanks to her considerable talent and doesn’t make any excuses for who she is. As we wait with the rest of the band for the studio’s conditions to be acceptable enough for Ma to perform, she finds all the right ways to command her own attention, especially when dealing with a trumpeter that thinks so highly of himself.
The film features excellent work from the rest of the cast as well, but well-deserved praise also goes to Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman as fellow band members Cutler and Toledo. Cutler does his best to keep everyone centered, though Domingo has true chances to shine as he delves into personal stories concerning his own struggles and how God has affected his worldview. Toledo is the old-timer of the film, and Turman is not so much working at strong delivery of sage wisdom as he is at playing a man who has seen a lot in his time and does his best now to stay on the right side of things.
Fitting for a theatrical atmosphere, these characters are each well-drawn to a point, and wherever they may lack in further exploration, they make up for in the conviction delivered through their words. Fitting for Wilson, this story features a series of events that are alive with the dialogue flow, and it is often as funny as it is hard-hitting to hear these people explain their points of view. That most of these conversations, arguments, and other interactions delve into the black experience makes it all the richer.
While written in the 80s and portraying the 1920s, its release in 2020 undoubtedly has relevance today when thinking of all the contributions black society has made to America, and what has been stolen in return. It’s reflected in the role Ma’s music plays, just as it is in how Levee sees where his talent can take him. Watching the subtle moments work on the confidence of the characters further informs the film, setting the stage for the other Wilson works to come.
At a quick-paced 90 minutes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom gets in and out but knows how to use that time wisely. There are full stories for the main players as they push through various struggles and spiral towards dramatic conclusions. Viewers can also enjoy the visual allusions that prove their thematic purpose as the film moves along and settle on an understanding of what it means to be black musicians with an advantage, and how far that can take someone. That may be a lot to dive into, but Ma welcomes all challengers and suffers no fools. This is a good crew to jive with.