Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
The adaptation from August Wilson's play delivers two of the year's best performances
August Wilson is one of the greatest American playwrights of the past century; and yet he’s still not as highly regarded as the likes of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. A potential and very probable reason: he’s black. Thankfully, Denzel Washington has taken up a challenge of adapting a series of Wilson’s stage work for the screen. His first effort was the highly regarded (and Washington-directed) Fences (2016). That film helped shine some light into the brilliant work from Wilson, and even garnered an Oscar for Viola Davis. Davis returns in the second effort from Washington (here only as a producer) with Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020).
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the real-life entitled “Mother of the blues” singer in the 1920s. The entire play takes place within one day as Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band travel from their touring in southern black towns to Chicago to make a recording. However, through a series of difficulties including tardiness, conflicting artistic intentions, and various egos the recording is an uphill battle. One of the reasons for such a clash is due to ambitious and witty trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who seeks to split off into his own band and rearrange Ma Rainey’s songs.
Ma Rainey is particularly focused on the relationship of black artists with the larger white-American culture. The real Ma Rainey proved to be an incredibly wealthy and successful woman thanks to her popularity with black Americans. White recording executives would pay her attention and reverence only thanks to the capital that she represented. It is this exploration of the value of black bodies regarding how black culture provides to white American that is the crux of Wilson’s play. There are multiple angles regarding this, especially regarding the clashes between the classical blues and weathered Ma Rainey, and Levee’s naïve character seeking to change up the musical culture and be accepted for his ingenuity. As such there is a curious play on appropriation of music in exploitative ways. The appropriation of black culture by white America has been something as old as the country itself, particularly in music. This is something that is only entering mainstream consciousness recently, and yet could not be made more apparent in the writing Wilson was doing in 1980s.
Ma Rainey is crafted in a very frustrating manner, where viewers are constantly teased of a series of songs finally being recorded only to be delayed again. Many might see this as a cheap ploy by the playwright to get more dialogue and character development in, however, I saw it as a more symbolic gesture. The dialogue between these delays goes into the oppression and difficulties of the black experience of each of the musicians, building up a sense of backstory and hardship that is later culminated when the band finally plays. This symbolism helps add to the idea of the amount of effort and subversion that these black performers had to overcome in order to escape and produce such music. It helps inform viewers as to the journeys and pain that can be behind a seemingly simple song. This can very well be applied to the blues genre, but I found a curious parallel could be made to rap music today. Rap music is still not as well-regarded within white America as it perhaps should. To think of the journeys behind each black rapper, their hardship and pain to sing about seemingly simple matters, adds much more depth to the evolution of black music.
The film is directed by George C. Wolfe, who brings a sense of stability and simplicity to this adaptation. While Fences seemed to let its actors loose to bring about as much intensity as they could, Wolfe decides to employ his actors to a better slow-build that allows for future outbursts to stand out more. As a result, the performances in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are what stand at the core of the entire film. The likes of Davis and Boseman are the main draws and the crown jewels for this film.
Just as with Fences, Ma Rainey’s suffers from not being able to adapt its setting to feel less cramped. No matter how many transition shots show 1920s Chicago, there is still an underlying feeling of watching a filmed play. For all the terrible aspects of Wild Mountain Thyme (2020), its play-to-screen adaptation at least employed a more expansive use of its setting and scenery. Ma Rainey’s entire runtime happens in two rooms at most. For a TV episode this cramped setting can sometimes work (as with the special episode “Rue” from Euphoria (2019-)), but for a film a sense of a grander scale or flexibility is usually demanded.
Thankfully, Wilson’s dialogue is well implemented in the adaptation, and it alone is able to expand the imaginations and characters. The film is at its best when it leaves a lingering camera on a performer as he or she spews a speech. Davis brings about a completely transformative performance, her most unrecognizable and chameleonic work yet, as she establishes the powerful presence of Ma Rainey with only 26 minutes of screen time. The brunt of the film, however, is the Boseman’s. Boseman’s every scene and line seem to pull viewers’ eyes on him; his natural charisma and heartbreaking delivery of certain speeches sends chills down your spine. One particular speech, of Levee recounting his traumatic childhood, is an absolute masterclass in acting, of restraint, intensity, and dignity. The fact that this performance is Boseman’s last, after dying of colon cancer earlier this year, only 43-years-old, makes his role here all the more emotional and poignant. There’s no doubt that this is Boseman’s finest performance ever, and it only adds to the tragedy that he left us at the peak of his career.
In the end, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom proves to be another fruitful and enlightening entry into Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson plays. The film suffered from being cramped and play-like, but Wilson’s words and writing fabulously stands the test of time and is capitalized by two tour-de-force performances from Davis and Boseman; the latter of whom could not have delivered a more perfect swan song.