Dir. George Wolfe; Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman
[3 out of 4 stars]
As eager as I was to watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), I was also hesitant. It was Chadwick Boseman’s last role before he passed away in August due to colon cancer. I wanted to wait to watch his last ever performance, knowing it would be particularly moving, and I hoped to savor it carefully. Now, having seen it, I can say that Boseman is every bit as astounding as I expected him to be, and together he and Viola Davis make Ma Rainey memorable. Otherwise, however, the film gets a bit bogged down by its script and tends to be too wordy.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on an August Wilson play of the same name. The setting is 1927 Chicago where well-known blues singer Ma Rainey (Davis) is recording songs for her next album. Ma’s band arrives at the studio before her, including Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and Levee (Boseman). The band patiently practices their songs while waiting for Ma to arrive. Levee repeatedly tells his band mates, emanating naive confidence, that soon he will have his own band and record deal. He has even given studio owner Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) some of his compositions to read. Eventually, Ma arrives, an hour late and amidst an altercation with police. Ma’s manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Sturdyvant are stressed and eager to start recording, but Ma runs the show. She cannot start recording without some cold Coca-Cola, and she insists that her nephew (Dusan Brown) be part of the record, even though he has a pronounced stutter. Tensions are high, and anticipation is rampant. The hot afternoon thus unfolds from there, as Ma clashes with Irvin about not doing things her way, Sturdyvant clashes with Irvin about how difficult he thinks Ma is to work with, and Levee clashes with just about everybody.
Helming the film is Davis, and she is a formidable presence. Before we shift to Chicago, which serves as the setting for the vast majority of our story, we are first treated to one of Ma Rainey’s shows, where she commands a crowd and seems to glow onstage. Her thick makeup melts off her face in the heat, she has a mouthful of gold teeth, and she can easily silence anyone who disagrees with her with a single withering look. Even before Davis appears onscreen, Irvin and Sturdyvant are nervous about how difficult she is to work with, how picky and temperamental. Meanwhile, the band repeats ruefully that “Ma is the boss!” There is such buildup to Davis’s entrance that I wondered how she would fill the enormous shoes the film created for her. But I shouldn’t have worried. Davis gives us a full-body performance, as she commands the room while belting out blues songs and strides around the studio ensuring everything is to her liking. But despite the strength that Ma clearly possesses, Davis does a beautiful job ensuring that her pain comes through as well. At one moment, she says, “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice. They gonna treat me the way I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt them.” Her eyes portray a deep exhaustion, but she keeps fighting for what she deserves with her immense talent. There are also moments of utter hilarity, like when she downs a cold Coca-Cola in one go, slurping and sucking on the glass bottle, taking her time, while all around her men sweat impatiently waiting for her to be ready. Davis manages to find a dry sort of humor at moments throughout the story, which breaks up the heat of the day.
The film’s other standout actor is Boseman as Levee, a young, naive trumpet player who roams lithely throughout his scenes, buoyed by his brand-new bright yellow shoes and dancing from shot to shot. At first, nothing appears to hold Levee down, excited as he is by the prospect of having his own record. Boseman’s eyes are bright here, and he exudes a confident, devil-may-care attitude, telling the band repeatedly “I don’t care what you play” and “Levee got to be Levee!” He wants to play what he wants to play exactly how he wants to play it, like Ma does, but he does not yet have the clout to ask for it. Boseman is thin and rangy here, likely due to his cancer treatment, but he wears it as part of Levee’s charm. But like Ma, he possesses deep pain. As he recounts to his band mates, he began doubting God exists after he watched his mother be gang-raped by white men and her prayers for help go unanswered. As good as Boseman is in his earlier scenes, he truly shines later in the story in Levee’s darker scenes, as he cries out against God and death, screaming that “God can kick my ass.” The scenes hold extra weight when we remember that Boseman himself was near death at this point, and that depth shows in his eyes. It’s an astounding performance; as my friend said at one point, “This is Chadwick’s seventh Oscar-worthy scene!”
I found that Ma Rainey felt a lot like a play (unsurprisingly) and was not entirely satisfied with how it was translated onscreen. The camera tries to move around and create a sense of depth, given that much of the narrative takes place in two rooms, but the effect somehow felt stilted and limiting. The camerawork could have used more creativity. With the exception of one notable long shot, it was uninteresting, and engaging camerawork is necessary to keep an audience involved if a film takes place on such a restricted set. There was also far too much dialogue, and many lines were repeated over and over again (e.g. Levee exclaiming “I don’t care what you play!”) unnecessarily. Boseman does not need to repeat himself. Some scenes became bogged down in too much language, apparently to establish the rapport and relationships between band members, but it was more than was needed to do so. It is easy to compare this film to Fences (2016) (which was also based on an August Wilson play and also stars Davis), but Denzel Washington’s direction there was more engaging and allowed the viewer to become immersed in the action and forget the physical restrictions of the set.
I would watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom again solely for Davis’s and Boseman’s performances, albeit not so much for its screenplay or directorial style. Yet the narrative itself is touching as it poignantly considers the pain of its characters and forces us to contemplate whose voices (and humanity) are valued, whose input is prioritized, and whose songs we remember as we reflect on the blues.