It’s impossible to watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom without, at the very least, a twinge of sadness. For many, the thought of it being Chadwick Boseman’s final performance coupled with what could have been, makes it hit harder and deeper. The film celebrates his considerable talents, but also those of two others – the real life “Mother Of The Blues” Ma Rainey and author August Wilson, on whose play the film is based.
How accurate a depiction this is of the larger than life Ma is open to question – some of it certainly has a basis in fact – but this is, ultimately, a drama. Set in 1927 Chicago, Ma (Viola Davis) and her four piece band are recording her new album in a shabby, sticky recording studio. The instrumentalists turn up first – Cutler the trombonist (Colman Domingo), horn player Levee (Boseman), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Toledo the piano player (Glynn Turman) – and when Ma arrives, late of course, she has her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) by her side. She’s decided he’ll introduce one of the tracks, regardless of the advice of her manager and producer. Also in tow is Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) her latest squeeze, who attracts Levee’s attention. Because this is a band with two divas – the horn player, who constantly talks about having his own band and composes his own music, and Ma, who allows nobody to stand in the way of her musical vision. And the band is ain’t big enough for both of them.
That Levee has talent, more than the band can accommodate, is apparent from early on but he’s constantly coming up against opposition, from their agent, their producer and Ma herself. His dalliance with Dussie Mae is an attempt at a coup, trying to replace Ma in the way that would hurt her the most. But this is also a man with a lean and hungry look, with an increasingly apparent anger simmering away just below the surface and, as we discover in one of the film’s heart stopping moments, good reason to rage against the system. But it doesn’t help him deal with the doors closed in his face or finding himself stuck in a dead end. He and Ma face similar problems, but she’s found a way of handling them, even if her methods are confrontational. Stuck in the middle, and often on the receiving end of their respective temperaments, is Cutler, a go-between-come-diplomat who’s had his fair share of setbacks and pain, but feels safer taking a more passive approach, to Levee’s frustration.
Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winner was first staged in 1984 and is adapted here by Ruben Santiago-Hudson but, try as he might, he can’t quite shake off the theatricality of the piece. Despite scenes set away from the stifling confines of the studio, most of which seem designed to reinforce the racial attitudes of the day, all three acts have an emotional high point, each more intense than the other. Coupled with the interior setting, this is still very much a play adapted for the screen – a dramatic and powerfully emotional one, but a play nonetheless. Those high points all centre on Boseman’s character and he stops you in your tracks every time, hardly allowing you to breathe as his anger scorches the screen. Viola Davis is almost unrecognisable as Ma, gleaming with sweat, expansive of build and relishing the opportunity to be difficult and dominant, but also showing a quieter side beneath her more extrovert antics.
Wilson creates characters to bring out the best in his actors. We saw in it Fences a handful of years ago and we see it again in Ma Rainey. But, while the previous film was almost a two hander, this has a bigger cast and a more complex story. Ultimately, however, it’s a stagebound movie, a real actors’ piece for performers at the top of their game. In truth, there isn’t a weak link in the cast, but it’s Boseman who grabs hold of your memory and never lets go.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Netflix | 18 December 2020 | Dir. George C Wolfe | Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Glynn Turman, Dusan Brown.