Many often speak about how quick one’s life can change in an instant to the point that it’s almost a cliché. Yet no matter how hyperbolic it sounds, there’s definitely reality within it. The late great playwright August Wilson tackled such a thing in his 1982 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in which one’s trauma and hubris leads to a snap-of-the-fingers fall from grace. At its heart, it’s a tragic allegory about the thin nature of the Black American Dream, where they’re are joys and plenty of frustrating compromises. After all, one of the story’s key conflicts finds several characters butting heads over the opening notes of a song, the very one that gives the original play, and now film, its title. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (a fantastic Viola Davis), the pioneering singer hailed all around as “the Mother of the Blues,” wants to stick with her usual arrangement, complete with an old-timey introduction that she expects her stuttering nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), to deliver. But her ambitious trumpet player (a knockout Chadwick Boseman), wants to dispense with the “old jug-band music” and tap into a newer, jazzier sound, one far removed from the traveling tent shows where Ma Rainey’s career began.
Directed by George C. Wolfe, he opens the movie in one of those southern tent shows, where Ma Rainey makes her first captivating entrance, her face smeared with dark makeup and her skin glowing with sweat, as it will be throughout this heated endeavor. Seductively swaying her hips and flashing a mouth full of gold teeth, she croons, “I’m on my way” — and she very much is, heading northward alongside countless other black women and men seeking better opportunities. But Ma is off for grander things than factory work; by the time her first number ends, she’s on a bigger, professional stage in a big city, basking in the glow of the audience’s adoration and her own hard-won stardom. Davis, in the role, is little short of stunning in the kind of brassy, no-nonsense diva showcase she’s rarely ever attempted. (It’s a far cry from her Oscar-winning turn in the last Wilson adaptation, Fences.) Enraptured in bold gowns, her Ma Rainey is both a stellar performer and a mesmerizing object of contemplation. (Outside of one song, Davis’ smoky vocals were supplied by singer Maxayn Lewis.) But Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t linger on this spectacle; it’s much more fascinated by who Ma, and her company, are behind the scenes and beyond the spotlight.
Adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, both he and Wolfe take that idea and don’t really go outward, don’t seek to “open up” the material like so many stage-to-screen adaptations. Instead, they seemingly look inward, taking Wilson’s work and breaking it down to the bare essentials. There are stretches that feel conventional and-or workmanlike, but very few dull ones. At just over ninety minutes, this Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels not just adapted but accelerated, as if it were racing to meet the deadline its own characters keep putting off, for better and for worst. The film unfolds over a hot summer day in 1927 Chicago, briefly evoked with outdoor sets that have a glorious studio-backlot artifice. Ma Rainey is running predictably late to her recording session and winds up giving much of the narrative spotlight to her band, which includes Ma’s guitar and trombone player, Cutler (Colman Domingo); her pianist, Toledo (Glynn Turman); and her bass player, Slow Drag (Michael Potts). They’re all consummate professionals who want the same thing as Ma’s nervy agent, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos): to rehearse the songs, cut a good record and get in and out as quickly as possible.
It’s pretty much foiled by Levee, who shows up well before Ma but turns out to be her near-equal in stubbornness and ego. Waltzing into the studio’s rehearsal space with a shiny new pair of yellow shoes and a pocket full of original songs he’s written, Levee dreams big and talks even bigger: He’s impassioned and proudly rebellious. Fancying himself a brilliant artist, he hurls himself into the session determined to outsmart and upstage everyone. Levee is lean and agile — his pinstripe suit seems to hang off him as he dances and whirls — but he’s also larger than life. And Boseman, crossing into that zone where performance becomes an act of possession, unleashes the kind of intensely grab-you-by-the-shoulders performance that the screen can hardly contain. Boseman could be the modest of movie stars, as no less a blockbuster than Black Panther demonstrated. But, as Get on Up showed as well, music clearly had a way of unlocking his inner showman.
Visually, you may see Levee’s lust for life, but verbally it’s a whole other game. Levee’s all verbal jabs and furious quarrels. What emerges in all the back-and-forths is more than just banal disputes about music, but more about what it means to be a black artist in a racist industry, and also what moral justice comes from “a white man’s God,” as Levee demands in one of his searing monologues. Do you pray to that God, or curse him? Do you fight back or buckle under? They’re questions that Levee has been contemplating all his life. Like Levee, Ma Rainey has too. With her star persona and a sense of self-preservation, we see Ma’s literally traffic-stopping energy, she isn’t afraid to flaunt or flex. But she also knows how, at any moment, she can and will be taken advantage of by her white executives, and with that she completely understands how and when to use her power. Whether it be keeping Sylvester on the payroll or demanding a bottle of Coke before the session starts.
For all their differences, Ma Rainey and Levee are kindred spirits as well as nemeses. (Their rivalry connected through a love with Ma Rainey’s younger girlfriend, Dussie Mae, played by Taylour Paige.) They are both visionaries and sellouts, serving up their considerable gifts to be duly exploited, and playing a game in which the rules will always be stacked against them. The other musicians, meanwhile, are simply trying not to lose (with the help of a fantastic, holding-their-own ensemble). One of Wilson’s cruelest insights is that his characters, trapped together in close quarters, will turn on each other with a primal, almost cannibalistic fury, channeling their justifiable rage in the wrong direction. Levee sets out for big things, to refute that cruel fate, only to rush straight into another. And Boseman, evincing the same integrity he clung to his entire career, refuses to soft-pedal the destination (even if its slightly stilted and rushed). He imparts to this seething, shattered man the gift of a broken soul, split by anger and trauma, and makes him all the more human for it. What’s ultimately his final moments on screen are among his darkest, and also his finest. A chamber piece at home in its theatrical roots, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom flashes with intensity both musically and thematically for an actor’s showcase of palpable energy.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will be released onto Netflix on December 18