Ma Rainey was a popular blues singer in the 1920s and was among the first to record that style of music. She was a black woman in a business run by white men. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (streaming on Netflix), a fictionalized account of a recording session for Rainey and her band in 1927 Chicago, shows a woman who is distinctly aware these men will only put up with black artists for as long as they have to. That is contrasted by horn player Levee, who believes in their promises and assumes his talent will be enough for him to rise to the top.
This story is based on the 1982 play by August Wilson. It feels like a play. It primarily takes place in one location and features lots of monologues, mainly shot in close-up. It isn’t particularly cinematic, but that becomes less of a problem when the material and performances are good. In this case, the material is really good and the performances are great. That allows the movie to come alive in a way that makes more creative filmmaking largely unnecessary. Yes, there are many scenes where we are just watching a character walk around a room while giving a speech, but there is so much life and emotion, in both the words and the acting, that the staging seldom feels limited.
The action is split between two rooms. Upstairs, Ma takes charge, barking out orders as she fights with her manager and producer, who want her to do things their way and then leave. She knows they care about the money brought in by her voice, not her, so she will do whatever she must to protect herself. Downstairs, the band practices and argues. Levee talks about all the success waiting for him, as the three older men in the group try to warn him about being used by white people who expect them to stay in their place. It may sound didactic or preachy, yet it never comes off that way.
Viola Davis stars as Ma Rainey, full of passion, intelligence and sexuality. When she walks into the recording studio, it doesn’t matter that she’s dealing with powerful men, she immediately asserts control. In a rare quiet moment, she gives us a peek at the resignation underneath her diva personality. She knows she will be discarded as soon as she isn’t useful anymore, so she’ll get everything she can, as long as she can. Similar to the character, Davis commands every scene she is in. She gives us little glimpses into Ma’s insecurities without ever softening or giving even an inch. She shows it with the way Ma looks at Dussie Mae, who is clearly Ma’s woman, while Dussie Mae makes eyes at Levee. Or the comforting way she speaks to her nephew, who she insists provide an introduction on the recording, despite his stutter. Ma may be forceful, selfish and blunt, yet Davis makes her sympathetic and very entertaining.
A lot of the talk about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will focus on the final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman, who plays Levee. Rightfully so. He is tremendous. On the surface, Levee is confident, charismatic and ready for stardom. However, inside, he is nearly overflowing with pain and rage. His smirking arrogance as he spars with the realistic Toledo or the religious Cutler wars with the torment on display as he relates a traumatic incident from his childhood. Never does it feel like Boseman is playing two sides of the same personality. Both aspects of Levee are always there, even if the anger is hiding behind the cockiness. It is outstanding, complex, work, that seems destined to get more praise during award season.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is mostly about race, though gender, religion and music are definitely given their due. It is smart and incisive. Director George C. Wolfe does the right thing by letting the acting (also including a wonderful performance by Glynn Turman as world-wise piano player Toledo) and the words of August Wilson (adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) do the heavy lifting. Each time I started to become distracted by the staginess, I was pulled back in by the immediacy and intensity of the rest of the production. This is an excellent farewell for Chadwick Boseman; further evidence, as if we needed any more, of what a great actor he was.
4 out of 5
Chadwick Boseman as Levee
Viola Davis as Ma Rainey
Glynn Turman as Toledo
Colman Domingo as Cutler
Michael Potts as Slow Drag
Jeremy Shamos as Irvin
Jonny Coyne as Sturdyvant
Taylour Paige as Dussie Mae
Dusan Brown as Sylvester
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson