Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ****
Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos
Director: George C. Wolfe
Based on the renowned play of the same name by August Wilson, the film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has been in development since 2013, when it was part of Denzel Washington’s 10 picture deal with HBO, which included one of Wilson’s other plays, Fences. Filmed in July 2019, Washington now sits as producer for the movie adaptation, which stars Viola Davis (The Help, Fences, Widows) as famed blues singer Ma Rainey, “The Mother Of The Blues”, who was one of the first African-American recording artists. The film also stars Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther, Da 5 Bloods, Get On Up) as trumpet-player Levee in the actor’s final role before his death from cancer earlier this year.
Irvin (Shamos - Birdman) has arranged a recording session at a Chicago studio for Ma Rainey, whom he manages. Gathering the band together, there is friction between the youthful and hot-headed Levee and Ma’s experienced accompanists Cutler (Domingo – Lincoln, Selma) and Toledo (Turman – Super 8, Burlesque). Levee wants to play a new jazz version of Ma’s song “Black Bottom”, but Ma is insistent that they play her original blues version. He also sets his sights on Dussie May (Paige), Ma’s girlfriend whom she keeps with her on the road as a trophy. As the recording session drags on through diva fits and arguments, it becomes increasingly clearer that Ma’s motives for her awkwardness are rooted far deeper than simple stubborn obstinacy.
Viola Davis gives an outstanding performance as the famed singer, imbuing her with ferocious confidence. She’s a headstrong stalwart, whose lethargic languor should not be mistaken for reticence. Rainey – like all the African-American characters here – understands that despite her fame, her colour has left her vulnerable to manipulation and dominance. Everything that she does is an attempt to flex control and be in charge of her own destiny, even if just for a minute. Toledo summarises it best as he casually plays the piano, comparing ethnicities to a stew of which people of colour are “the leftovers”.
Chadwick Boseman is electrifying as Levee, who claims he knows how to conduct himself with white people without being subservient. Boseman gives a mesmerising performance in a monologue that explains what happened to his parents, but as Levee’s command over his own future diminishes throughout the film, it is this deterioration and subsequent fury at the world he cannot control that drives the narrative and its heart. This is a tour-de-force for Boseman and the Academy may well come a-knocking both for him and Viola Davis, which would be a fitting legacy for an actor taken from us in his prime.
Chicago in 1927 looks luscious on screen, while the costume and makeup is positively oozing the movie’s era. The music is outstanding too – with vocals for Rainey by Maxayn Lewis instead of Davis – although I’m sure I’m not alone to have wanted to hear a lot more of the blues singer’s back catalogue within the movie. The script is outstanding, but as it’s based on a Tony-nominated play, that’s hardly surprising. In fact, this was always going to be a winning formula, but with one major stumbling block; the screen adaptation of a playscript intended for the stage.
Unfortunately, this is where the play falls at the first hurdle. It’s clear from the outset that director Wolfe has such reverence for the source material that he didn’t want to add dialogue into the characters’ mouths not written by double Pulitzer-Prize winner Wilson. As a result we have a movie peppered with scenes meant to contextualise that are completely devoid of dialogue, feeling like the director lacks confidence, tipping his hat to the material but afraid to put his own stamp on it. This is a movie after all, not a stage show. We are left with unities of time and place that yes, do indeed boil like a pressure cooker, but is just a lot of people talking in rooms. And that’s great for stage, but isn’t particularly cinematic.
This is a film that rides on the coat-tails of its magnificent leads. Davis and Boseman give two of the finest performances on screen this past year, but it’s a slow-burn and definitely lacks universal appeal. I’m happily now entrenched in a Ma Rainey Spotify playlist, but don’t expect this to be a biopic about the singer, because it’s absolutely not.
OUT NOW TO WATCH ON NETFLIX.