Miraculous Performances and Writing Make ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Sing

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a surreal viewing experience.

First there is Chadwick Boseman, the beloved actor we lost in August to colon cancer. Filmed as he valiantly fought his disease’s final stages, his performance is cast into a fascinating, heartrending new light. For millions of fans, this film is an opportunity to celebrate an actor who, despite his global popularity and significant impact, feels underrated as an artist (spoiler alert: this film will change that forever).

Another reason is that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t feel like a film. It was adapted from the play by August Wilson, part of his survey of the African American experience in the 20th century. Ma Rainey follows a daylong recording session for legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band: Levee (Chadwick Boseman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). Set on an especially hot day in 1920’s Chicago, tensions are further enflamed by clashes of ego, artistic vision, family, sex, and of course race.

Wilson’s plays are so powerful that you can understand why director George C. Wolfe wouldn’t want to deviate or distract from one. Working from Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay, he keeps the scope of his adaptation relatively small. He doesn’t pad the film with extraneous scenes for background or context, keeping the runtime at a lean 90 minutes. He does afford himself a rousing opening scene, a Ma Rainey performance that also telegraphs the band’s simmering tensions, but much of the drama is kept within the walls of the recording studio, alternating between the band and session rooms. The sets are certainly more elaborate than they would be on Broadway, but the staging and blocking bares an intimate resemblance. Wolfe’s adaptation is as faithful to Wilson as it could be without filming a stage production live.

Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (courtesy: Netflix)

That faithfulness creates a natural tension between Ma Rainey’s stage roots and its cinematic ambitions. The stage and the screen are two wildly different beasts, and making the leaps from one to another can be difficult (American Son stumbled in its big-screen attempt last year). Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson’s respectful restraint can make for awkward viewing at times, especially when they’re bringing Wilson’s rich dialogue to life. The script sounds like it was written for the stage, and Wolfe doesn’t do enough structurally to fit it within a new cinematic context. And yet it still works, because of Wilson’s immense talent as a storyteller, and Ma Rainey‘s exceptional cast interpreting his words.

August Wilson pairs rich character interiority with universal truths about the Black American experience, which makes for relentlessly compelling drama (most recently seen in Fences, which won Viola Davis an Oscar). In Ma Rainey, Wilson honed in Black creativity and art, using the Mother of Blues to explore the ways in which it is discounted, stolen, and neutered for white audiences. Ma Rainey’s behavior – her demands for a Coke before recording a note, her refusal to record Levee’s version of her staple “Black Bottom” – is a rejection of the racism and sexism built into the transactional nature of her career. She knows where her power comes from and how fragile it is in the Jim Crow era, and she is unwilling to cede any territory to people who only care about how they can profit from her voice.

Chadwick Boseman and Colman Domingo (courtesy: Netflix)

Levee, the ambitious trumpet player, has a different understanding of the music industry he desperately wants to break into. Levee believes wholeheartedly that his talent will put him above the rest, and is willing to acquiesce to the white gatekeepers for the chance to prove himself, even though he insists that he understands how the game is played. To his surprise and no one else’s, Levee is rebuffed, and his devastation, compounded by childhood trauma, leads to a genuinely shocking act. Levee’s tragedy is a messy convergence of mental health crisis, unfulfilled potential, and the inherent failures of respectability politics. As is Wilson’s gift, Levee and Ma’s stories resonate with Black people across age, location, and profession, and Wolfe’s insistence in maintaining their purity is admirable, if a bit safe.

What isn’t safe, and elevates Wilson’s work to extraordinary heights on screen, are the performances of Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Davis is an actress of phenomenal and near-boundless range, and Ma Rainey is a character that allows her to tap into the depths of her talent in utterly satisfying ways. She fully inhabits Ma Rainey, from her slightly glazed eyes down to the soles of her feet, adorned with house slippers. She writhes and wobbles, shouts and seduces, torments and tends to loved ones, all with an uncompromising swagger and a world-weary understanding that communicates decades of untold experience. An Oscar winner and a Wilson play veteran, Davis’ mastery of the material is expected. And yet, she still manages to surprise.

Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (courtesy: Netflix)

And then there’s Chadwick Boseman, delivering a career-best performance that should win him the Academy Award for Best Actor. He is a mesmerizing presence from the second he appears on screen, and he never lets go of our attention. With a permanent glint in his eye, Boseman bounces across the screen with an all-consuming, feverish energy that both charms and hints at the manic cracks beneath the bluster. When Boseman surfaces Levee’s pain in two landmark monologues, the results are almost inconceivable. His performance is startlingly, breathtakingly alive, without a single inauthentic note. It would be an artistic triumph under normal circumstances. Given what we know now about Boseman’s personal struggles while filming, it’s a miracle.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a towering showcase for two powerfully gifted actors at the height of their powers, giving voice and body to a life-affirming playwright’s observations of what it means to be Black in the 1920’s, the 80’s, and today. For the implications of that alone, the film’s conventional approach is more than forgivable. Wolfe allows us to appreciate the alchemy of August Wilson unencumbered, the life and times of Ma Rainey, and the full dimension of Chadwick Boseman’s skill that is beautiful and painful to witness. More than a play adaptation, or a film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a celebration of Black creativity, and a loving tribute to its keepers, living and ancestral.

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