Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is another stage-to-screen adaptation that puts in the best actors of this generation and puts out their best work. Playwright August Wilson has penned many plays that are based on the African American experience. The last adapted work, Fences, put Denzel Washington and Viola Davis together sharing the screen and showcasing the mesmerizing talent that they both have. This time, we have Washington as a producer with Davis as the main star playing the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey with Broadway’s George C. Wolfe behind the camera to bring this story to life filled with resonance and energy.
Based on August Wilson’s play, the film takes place in a hot summer day in Chicago during the 1920s during the recording session of a band of musicians as they wait for their leading performer, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis).
Coming late into the studio, Ma Rainey ends up in a heated battle with her white manager and producer over the rights to her music. Meanwhile, the story also focuses on one of Ma Rainey’s trumpeters, Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman), who has ambitions of having his own band as he shares some of his past and sorrows with his fellow musicians. Levee’s dreams of creating his own music also has him working with the manager and producer, forcing him to experience some of his past traumas.
The film brings on some of the most powerful performances out of Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in his final role.
Davis brings the sheer diva out of Ma Rainey with her extravagant dresses and her fierce attitude towards her band and managers. She commands the screen with her presence, but underneath that power comes a woman who is fighting to be accepted in society that has just come out of the Jim Crow era. Boseman’s Levee starts in the beginning as a man with dreams in the music business, but we also get the sense of where he came from to get to where he is. He also knows that the old ways of doing things are done and it is time for something new, which reflects on the times of the roaring 20s. Boseman gives it his all and it shows on screen the glory and the pain that his character has as he lashes out at his bandmates but also plays nice with the managers to get his spotlight.
Other players in the band introduced are bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman). All these men know how to act around Ma when she’s working with them. Each of them try to pacify their newest recruit, Boseman’s Levee as he tries to change some of Ma’s musical arraignments, which doesn’t sit well with Cutler and Ma. When we see Davis, she is barely unrecognizable underneath all the glittery makeup and teeth as Ma. We see her accompanied by her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) as they get the discomforting eyes of her peers. She is an outsider to her own people but her talent has given her the power over the world of white men. She feels in control with her conversations with her white manager and record producer as she makes sure everything goes her way.
Her fight between these men in suits are nothing compared to the hostility that rises between her and the cocky Levee, who is only looking out for himself. Once the recording sessions take off, things don’t always go well throughout the day. Out of all of it, difficult to see who will suffer for these emerging tensions.
It is the dialogue that comes out of forefront in a film that doesn’t rely heavily on plot, as it should. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is filled with great storytelling as these band-members spill their hearts on screen of their backgrounds and the history of the Deep South. Toledo sees the state of Black Society as it is, while Levee sees the opportunities that await for men like them in an emancipated America.
The movie’s costume and production design does a fine job teleporting viewers back to the hot summer days of Chicago in contrast with the play’s winter setting. The lighting brings out more of the characters and their struggles as they contend with the heat in the busy industrial city. The music and makeup makes us appreciate the blues and its powerful message of the American landscape through the eyes of African Americans. The change in the ending from the play displays just how tragic the music business was under the leadership of white record labels pushing their Black musicians to put their best work forward.
In the end, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is engaging as it is illuminating. Davis disappear into her role as the Mother of the Blues as she stays true to the appearance of the singer and powerful demeanor. Boseman also makes his last role in his lifetime the absolute best that he has ever done. Through the delivery of monologues, he gives it his all and it shows when we see him shatter on screen. Through this film, it explores race, art, money, and religion in ways that still resonate with us today.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is currently streaming on Netflix.
Piece written by TANTV contributor Mufsin Mahbub