Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Director – George C Wolfe
Cast – Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos
The conversations flow easily in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, like water along a summertime stream. Based on the August Wilson play of the same name and directed by George C Wolfe, the cracking 94-minute film unfolds across a single sweltering day in 1920s Chicago. It may be limited in scale, but the scope of its ideas is majestic.
Four musicians converge at a recording studio one afternoon. They await their boss, Ma Rainey, a legendary singer known in certain circles as the Mother of Blues. It’s a title befitting a queen, and Viola Davis certainly plays Ma Rainey like some sort of despot.
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She saunters in with a young lesbian lover and a stuttering nephew, tardy and terrifying. Ma Rainey commands the room — every room — the moment she enters it. You get the sense that even the faucets in her lavatory curtsey when she drops by.
When she wants a Coke, she has someone run out and grab her a couple of ice-cold bottles — she refuses to sing a single note before she’s had her refreshments. When her manager suggests that they try a new version of one of her classic songs — to transform it into something people could dance to — she shuts him down with a look. Later, when the white man in charge of the studio attempts to swindle her out of money that she is owed, she delivers a threat so chilling that his knees go weak.
There is no cause too small, or too big, for Ma Rainey. She must fight for everything, even if it’s a bottle of Coca Cola.
Through each of these three scenes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom reveals what it’s really about. It’s about Black people, still emerging from the shadow of their recent past, learning to live respectable lives. It’s about the power of art, and the importance of upholding one’s creative integrity. And it is also about the oppression of an entire community, and the system that sets them up for nothing but self-destruction.
With just a handful of characters and a single setting, Wilson’s play captured the breadth of the Black experience. The film comes awfully close.
Readings of it will certainly be affected by what has happened in real life. Chadwick Boseman, the man behind the movie’s most magnificent performance, died when it was in post-production. He’s heartbreaking as the hot-headed trumpeter Levee — a manifestation of all the Black men who dare to dream, despite their pasts, but are constantly stopped in their tracks by a skewed system.
As they rehearse before their session, Levee’s blasphemous ideologies collide with the devotion to God that drives the rest of his bandmates. Tempers flare.
When they make fun of him for kowtowing to the white owner of the studio, in the hope that he gets to record music there too, it triggers something in Levee. Furious at the insinuation, he monologues about a racially motivated violent incident from his past, the camera inches from Boseman’s face. When he’s done, there’s stunned silence. “Backup and leave Levee alone about the white man,” he says quietly, the rage that was moments ago spilling out of his voice now simmering in his eyes. “I can smile and say ‘yessir’ to whoever I please. I got my time coming to me.”
This is the scene that will win Chadwick Boseman his Oscar. It will be only the third posthumous Academy Award ever given in an acting category, and the first since Heath Ledger won it over a decade ago.
To make matters slightly more difficult, however, Netflix has decided to campaign Boseman in the leading actor category for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is fair — Levee has a more resounding arc than any other character in the film. It also gives the streamer an opportunity to slot him in the supporting actor category for Da 5 Bloods, and thereby avoid any chances of self-cannibalisation. So don’t be surprised if Boseman ends up with two nominations at next year’s Oscars.
But even the non-conformist Levee can’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the volatile genius that is Ma Rainey. He talks a big game when he’s with the boys, but cowers before his boss’ presence. Davis gets her moment in the spotlight, too, when in a rare instance of vulnerability, she delivers a speech about being valued only because of her voice. And it’s true. The film’s ironic coda makes that much clear.
Of the two August Wilson adaptations that Denzel Washington has been associated with (he’s a producer on this one), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the better film. Unlike Fences, which Washington directed and starred in, it’s more cinematic, and less stagey. It’s one of the year’s best films, and a stirring send-off for one of his generation’s most talented actors.