An electric Viola Davis glows with sweat, rouge, and power in this successfully filmed version of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. If she is the immovable object in this play, then Chadwick Boseman is the unstoppable force here. He brings awe and fury to this role. As his final screen performance, we are left contemplating the immensity of his absence when it is all said and done.
The play was adapted for the screen by longtime Wilson interpreter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe. It is set around a recording session in 1927 for the famed (real life) blues artist Ma Rainey (Davis) and includes her signature number “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Her band, manager, and the recording studio wait for her to arrive, with trepidation and already growing annoyance. This is not the first time Ma and her white manager and the white studio owner have been at odds. They grumble about her attitude and behavior. But there’s also a growing tension between Ma and her new band member, Levee (Boseman).
He is a young upstart trumpeter who is ready to break out on his own and make his own music. He’s also been making eyes at Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae. Trying to keep Levee in line are the long-time band mates, Cutler (Coleman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts).
Wolfe’s film bears a golden haze, amber tones, and we feel the blistering heat of the sun. While the original play is set on the brink of spring, Santiago-Hudson transposes the film to the summer. Dust kicks up off the road, sunshine pours in through the windows, and daylight just burns and burns the characters in the street. Everyone is coated with perspiration and this mirrors the rising tensions and pressure cooker of a situation. Bad things happen when no one can cool off.
Like much of Wilson’s work, there is a holding of the past with the present. The conversations may cover lynching, rape, and mob violence, but the issues of white exploitation of Black artists, racial discrimination, and structural oppression are by no means limited to life in 1927. But it also offers a window into a specific time where these Southern touring musicians find no particular welcome in the North. The Great Migration has begun and with it new conflicts in new cities.
Ma is an epic character. Wolfe takes advantage of the medium to illustrate all aspects of her character and her persona. We get a close-up of her expensive gowns with detailed brocade, her grill, her heavy stage make-up, her defiant gulping of a coca cola, and her unmistakable swagger. Moreover, the camera just eats up everything Davis serves.
Ma is unapologetically queer, holding space, and taking up room. Davis shows us that Ma has lived a tough life and her hard-earned work has resulted in this current moment where she has a beautiful new automobile, a young girlfriend, money, and the ability to make these white men wait for her. She is confident, authoritative, and in full possession of herself.
She’s intoxicating as she understands her power and her tiny bit of leverage with these white men. They need her to record this album to make money, but there is no respect for her otherwise. She also knows the fragility of this and it all could disappear in a moment. She takes nothing for granted and there is fight in everything she does. There has to be. She has no choice but to push for what she has earned, what she is entitled to, and what she deserves. The story may be about Ma, but the resonance of this dynamic is bigger than this one woman. I could not help but think about the white liberal refrain of “Black women will save us” during this year’s election and the lack of real respect and space for Black women otherwise in our culture.
Davis holds all of this and presses the moments she needs to, as every inch of ground she holds for Ma must be defended constantly. She gets only a few moments of levity and in them we can see her joy, her lust, and even a glimmer of peace. It’s a performance which adds layers to the text and Davis varies her shades of defiance.
Levee is Ma’s opposite. Where she has over time built this small corner of power, he is ready for change to happen now.
Filled with ambition, fueled by rage, and driven by a belief that he can somehow outrun the structural racism around him, this begets tragedy. Boseman contains this firebrand at times, where his pain hides behind his smiles, and then it flares up—pouring out in tears, menace, or aggression. His self-worth also melts in front of us and like the child he is he tries to magically think his way out.
Santiago-Hudson keeps taunting Levee with a locked door in the rehearsal room. As Boseman paces, talks, and fumes he frequently pushes at this door—a temptation, a challenge, and somewhere he is being kept out which only makes him want it more. The metaphor works and it fits so naturally into the story I thought it might have come from the play itself, but it is a well-crafted invention of Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay.
While not straying too far from the play, the film has the ability to expands the lens to help frame and contextualize the play. A celebratory tent show on the road shows us Ma’s touring appeal and her showmanship. Menacing white men on the streets of Chicago surrounding Ma after a traffic accident shapes our understanding of where she has power and where she does not. Giving us a glimpse of a pasty-face white band stiffly sucking the life out of Levee’s music offers the play an additional sad coda.
A subtle and unobtrusive score by Branford Marsalis quietly serves Wilson’s monologues and big moments—hovering just below the surface with a string or percussive tension letting the words and performance carry the moment.
Wolfe doesn’t rush the quiet moments either. He lets some scenes be filled with simply the sound of breathing as characters try to find their equilibrium again.
Wilson writes big monologues, banter, and parables throughout his plays and each actor here gets his moment to share. It’s a universally strong ensemble including many who have appeared in Wilson plays on stage. They know his rhythms, but moreover these roles feel lived in. These are not characters, but people who are messy, flawed, and a treat to watch.
It’s a gem of a film capturing these actors at the top of their game. And it’s only the beginning of producer Denzel Washington’s plan to film nine of August Wilson’s plays (originally for HBO and now for Netflix). It’s an auspicious start.