I can’t stop thinking about the opening shot of George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It’s a shot that seems familiar—two Black boys in period costumes on the run in the forest, so they must be running away from slavers. But then we see that they’re running towards something—the music of Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Ma Rainey sings the blues, an entirely African American-created artform that brings Black people together through, as Ma later puts it, the music expresses suffering even if it doesn’t provide an escape from it. This fascinating portrait of Black artistry comes alive in Wolfe’s movie thanks to the powerhouse performances from Davis and especially the late Chadwick Boseman in his final role. Both characters have large personalities, but only one of them is acutely aware of the white exploitation that’s coming for Black art. In this intense crucible of a scorching day in Chicago, Boseman and Davis are electrifying even if there are times when the film strains against the confines of its stage origins.
Set in Chicago in 1927, Ma Rainey and her band are set to record Ma’s songs for an album. Her band leader Culter (Colman Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) are all on board with the work they have to do, but young upstart trumpeter Levee (Boseman) resents having to do what he sees as “jug band” music. He’s writing songs that have more fire and tempo, and once he gets his own band together, he’s going to break out on his own and be a bigger success than Ma. For her part, Ma knows that she has all the power in these recording sessions, but the second her voice is on vinyl, it will be exploited. As tensions rise throughout the day with Ma’s white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) struggling to facilitate the recording session with the dismissive producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), we see a portrait of how Black art is valued by its artist and the tragic economic realities that seeks to steal that art for white audiences.
As we saw with Denzel Washington’s 2016 adaptation of Wilson’s Fences (Washington serves as a producer on Ma Rainey), the writing is so undeniably strong and potent that all you really need are two amazing actors at the center, and you’ve got powerful performances that cannot be denied. Davis won an Oscar for her work in Fences and could easily win another for her turn as Ma Rainey. What’s so brilliant here is that Rainey defies easy description. She’s strong but she’s clearly exhausted. She’s bitter but she also clearly has affection for her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). We all know Davis is one of the best actors of her generation, and while Ma Rainey may not be the “flashy” role, Davis plays it with a captivating world-weariness that gets to the truth of how white business exploits Black people.
The flashy role belongs to Boseman, and he plays Levee with such anger, desperation, glee, and fury that there are times where you have to remind yourself to breathe watching his performance. Levee is an astonishing role because you have a character who thinks he knows the score, but we’re all waiting for the fallout from the harsh lessons he’s about to endure. He has the talent and the bravado, and it simply doesn’t matter because he’s part of a system that won’t accept either because of his Black skin. The levels this role requires are mind-boggling as we’re never allowed to simply dismiss Levee as a hothead or embrace him as misunderstood genius. He’s all of these things, and yet Boseman consistently elicits our sympathy with every gesture and line. In the hands of a lesser actor, Levee’s monologue or outbursts would feel like playing to the rafters of a non-existent auditorium, but Boseman is pitch perfect. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance in what should have been a long career filled with Oscars.
Where Ma Rainey struggles is where Fences also struggled, which is that Wilson wrote these stage plays for the stage. They were intended for only one or two “locations”, and any screenwriter is going to struggle to make that cinematic. For his part, Wolfe does a tremendous job with cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler making the rooms feel claustrophobic, sweaty, and emphasizing the pressure-cooker that’s bound to explode with these conflicting personalities. I would also add that while you can “feel” the stage origins, over time, that stuff kind of dissipates when the performances are so good. No one cares anymore that Glengarry Glen Ross largely takes place in an office; they just remember the acting and the dialogue. The other stuff melts away even if the source material was aimed at the stage rather than the screen.
And like Fences, Ma Rainey gives the viewer plenty to consider about Black life in America in the way that only Wilson could create. The film demands for us to explore how Black art is created and then exploited, and how we really haven’t broken free from this dichotomy because of the racial caste system in America we’ve continued to perpetuate. We can acclaim the writing and performances all day, but ultimately the ones getting rich are guys like Netflix CEOs Ted Sarandos and Reed Hastings. That’s the America we’ve constructed, and while the art they’ve paid for will likely outlast them (there’s a reason we know the name “August Wilson” and not the producer of the Broadway production), it’s still a dichotomy we have to reckon with.
But even if you want to set all that aside (and I’d recommend that you don’t since it’s kind of the point of the movie), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom demands to be seen because of Boseman and Davis. This is acting at its finest, and while the supporting cast deserves acclaim for their work, these two performances are what kept me glued to the screen. Yes, they’re the kind of performances that tend to win Oscars, but more importantly, they’re the kind of performances that endure and further appreciate the artists for their talent and work ethic. For a movie about the power of Black art and why it must be cherished, why you must run towards it, I can’t think of anything more essential.
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