Movies based on plays are an odd sub-genre of movies. Oftentimes directors feel the need to try and “open up a play” to make it feel more “cinematic” and less claustrophobic. Others tend to go the other way and film it in such a way where it feels like the camera is merely recording the performances. But, for me, this genre is at its best when it understands the beauty of cinema, the human face.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an adaptation of an August Wilson play of the same name. George C. Wolfe takes Wilson’s play and doesn’t try to make it seem less claustrophobic but also manages to make it feel less theatrical and more organic. But above all, Wolfe understands the mesmerizing power of his actor’s face and allows us to sit back and see a menagerie of great talent work with masterful material.
Wolfe primarily splits the movie into two primary locations. The recording studio where Ma Rainey and her band will record and the downstairs rehearsal room where the band practices. Downstairs the band discusses everything from the horn player Levee’s (Chadwick Boseman) new yellow shoes to the piano player Toledo’s (Glynn Truman) ex-wife. Slow Drag (Micahel Potts) the double bass player watches on occasionally giving his two cents of wisdom. Meanwhile old Cutler (Colman Domingo), the trombonist and bandleader try to keep the proceedings from spiraling into chaos.
The story could be a biopic but it is not, though Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) was a real legendary blues singer, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was one of her songs. Wilson’s script, adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, uses Rainey and her song as a cipher of Black artistry and exploitation of that talent. But more importantly, it looks at how Black trauma trickles down through the generations and how music and art help heal those wounds while also showing how the exploitation of that art created fresher and deeper wounds in the process.
Ma isn’t alone. She shows up at the run-down studio with her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). Up until her arrival, things shave been relatively calm. Though Wolfe begins to sow seeds of tension as the band argues about which version of “Black Bottom” to play. The record producer Mr. Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) wants to play the song with a new intro Levee has written. But Cutler knows Ma and tries to get Levee to understand that this is Ma’s band, not his.
Boseman’s Levee is a superstar turn. This is his last performance before his untimely death and it will stand as a reminder of the breadth and depth of our loss. His Levee is like a whirlwind of life, constantly moving, snapping his fingers, tapping his toes in every frame. Boseman plays Levee as a cocky bastard but one that is steeped in a wounding sadness.
“If my Daddy had knowed I was going to turn out like this he woulda named me Gabriel.” Levee is a horn player of uncommon talent and confidence. The new kid in the band who can’t understand why everyone is so deferential to Ma. Mr. Sturdyvant has even promised him money for some songs Levee has written and dangled the promise of recording them if Levee could get a band together. The others shake their head, they’ve heard it all before.
But if Boseman is on fire then Viola Davis is the hurricane that fans the flames. Davis is one of the greatest actors working today. Yet, it feels as if her Ma Rainey is something unique in her pantheon of performances. A tempest of desire, pride, and bitter sadness, her Ma Rainey is a swaggering tough-talking diva who demands respect and will get it come hell or high water. “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that. And they gonna treat me the way I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt ‘em.”
Levee believes he is being held back but Ma knows she is. Unlike Levee, Ma understands once they get all her songs recorded they will have little use of her. She is merely an object to the white producers, her agent Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) included.
Wolfe cleverly structures Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in a way that keeps the rhythm of Wilson’s play intact while allowing his actors room to play. Listening to Boseman and Davis speak Wilson’s dialogue is akin to listening to a Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith recording, pure pleasure. Even better, Wolfe, a theater director, understands how to get the best out of everybody, making the entire production a delight to behold from start to finish.
Domingo’s voice is silky smooth and the scenes between him and Davis are as sublime as the ones with him and the rest of the band. There’s just something about the way he says, “One, two, you know what to do,” that sticks with me. The joy and rhythm in his voice. Domingo’s presence brings a joy with a certain sense of beguiling pragmatism. Levee annoys him but he’s glad that someone seems to be making it, though he suspects Levee won’t be going as far as he thinks.
The scenes where the band talks shop are some of the most delightful moments of acting I’ve seen all year. That Boseman’s Levee has a tragic monologues smack dab in the middle of it is a testament to both Wilson’s and Boseman’s talent. The monologue is lengthy and gruesome but Boseman’s eyes, so wide with mischief and mirth begin to shine with a pang of deep sadness and anger that if ignored could become a poison. Cutler and the others can only look on and nod.
Tensions eventually spill over between Ma and Levee, especially after Ma catches the horn player making eyes at her lover. But that’s only a dramatic artifice. Part of the tension that boils over is between the old and the new. Levee’s jazz songs are faster, the way he plays is louder and doesn’t fit with Ma’s blues.
Wolfe wisely understands thought that it is only part of it. Wilson’s play covers such an array of themes and issues to try and reduce any if it to one simple thing would be foolhardy. But all of it is about the Black experience viewed through Black eyes. It is an attempt to reckon with history and its abuses by way of the blues.
Working with cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler, the duo side step cinematic framing and instead frame each scene to better capture the actor’s face. In the scenes where Ma discusses her art and her life with Cutler, Schliessler’s camera rests on Davis’s face. Wolfe allows us the simple pleasure of seeing one of the greatest actors working today up close with minimal light but enough to see every crevice and twitch of that magnificent face. That he allows the same for Domingo’s Cutler shows a theater director’s generosity toward actors.
Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson change Wilson’s ending by tacking on a coda. Normally one would expect outrage at such a thought but I must confess it works. I won’t spoil the ending suffice to say visually it sums up the complex themes perfectly.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom contains some of the best performances I’ve seen this year. But perhaps it is merely the joy of listening to great actors recite great dialogue written by a great playwright. Whatever the reason the music is in the words and the actors sing them with sublime perfection.
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