'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Is a Vibrant, Devastating Work of Art
Photo credit: David Lee / NETFLIX
The hardships, repressed frustrations, and weaknesses that come with asphyxiation under systemic oppression are omnipresent in the work of the late, great playwright August Wilson. He fully understood the experience of black Americans; The tone and cadence, mannerisms, and use of AAVE (African American slang) in his plays determine that his theatrical experiences are intended for black audiences. In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the third of Wilson's works to be adapted for screen, rhythm, and blues is the means by which our characters deal with daily exposure to white supremacy.
The film begins with a fascinating montage of performances by the “mother of the blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). She rules and is popular for the stage, but there is tension between the singer and one of her band members, Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his last performance). The trumpeter longs for everything Ma has: the art, the spotlight, the applause. The two compete against each other while their bandmates watch, and the problems ahead are palpable.
The next day, the band is scheduled to record a collection of songs in a Chicago studio run by the economically unhelpful Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). An afternoon of stories, arguments, jokes and philosophy unfolds among the band members before music is even recorded. While this is the story of Ma Rainey and Levee, each character in the ensemble is critical to telling this story. Colman Domingo as trombonist Cutler adds this film to a number of exceptional supporting roles and once again takes what's on the page to a new level. Glynn Turman as Toledo, a pianist reflecting on races in America and black masculinity, plays the beats of misapplied and misunderstood knowledge with grace and dispels and releases tension with its natural rhythm. Michael Potts does just as wonderful a job with minimal dialogue as the bassist Slow Drag; His annoyed expressions on his face are a striking storytelling tool.
As a Levee, Boseman is layered and electric. So many of his previous appearances require a sense of royal silence; Here he is stretching muscles in a way that we have never seen before. It's a pleasure to see him play ruthlessly, a character who doesn't have to hold back. Levee has a rude but personable charm rooted in an unresolved childhood trauma, and as the film revolves around his volatile ambition, Boseman takes on the spotlight's challenge - a performance full of life and conviction, a devastating memory we don't we'll see more of his multifaceted talent. It hadn't even started to realize its full potential.
Photo credit: David Lee
When Ma Rainey arrives with her friend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), her ego steps into a boxing match with Levees. Ma requests and delays admission until her needs are met, just as Levee expresses a dangerous interest in Dussie Mae. All of this pales in comparison to the enormous task of recording "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom", a mission that plays more of an antagonistic role than any individual character. In search of a perfect record, the song brings out the worst competitive and divisive drives among this group of people.
Ma is uncompromising and aggressive, and Davis is powerful in the role, her presence large and exuberant, but still controlled - the character takes over as she expresses her struggles. Ma is an absolute diva, and Davis clearly enjoys the material: her performance is precise and sure, and her moments of comedic ease land every time. Although Ma's behavior may seem improbable, she explains her reasoning in an interview with Cutler: "You don't care about me. You just want my voice. Well, I've learned that. And you will treat me the way I am treated no matter how much it hurts them. They call me all sorts of names there. Call me anything but a child of God. But they can't do anything else because they don't have what they wanted. Once they have my voice on one Turn the recording devices down, it's like I'm a whore. They turn around and put on their pants. Then they have no use for me.
Ma understands her social position as a black woman in the 1920s: She is only wanted for entertainment and financial gain for the white patriarchy. To maintain a semblance of dignity and just survive, tough demeanor is essential to get what it deserves. Levee also believes these feelings are the key to success, but takes a different approach: by playing within the white system and claiming to understand his pitfalls, he believes he will get what he wants. But Levee will learn that this worldview won't work in your favor for blacks.
Photo credit: David Lee
Theater adaptations too often feel stilted when they transfer the magic of a stage play - a few locations, a limiting structure - to the film. For the most part, Ma Rainey's black bottom does the crossover. It knows exactly where to open, and it makes the story feel richer. At other times, however, the film slows down - to match the speed of a character taking a break to provide background information, for example - and the jump doesn't always land gracefully. Director George C. Wolfe, a New York theater artist, never gets in the way of Wilson's words, however, and balances out tempo problems with beautifully crafted blocking, staging, and camera movements that create an intimate, homogeneous effect. Spatial experience. Each actor balances the vast amount of dialogue written for theater with the intimacy required for cinema, and their larger-than-life performances go beyond the screen. Everything from the almost musical fluidity of the actors' interactions with the camera to the sumptuous costumes and production design make for an invigorating experience.
The film ends on a strong, shocking and sharply dark note that crystallizes its philosophy: Moving through a world that values what you can do for it, and not the other way around, is a heavy burden on the psyche. Being black in America means walking a tightrope that, if not careful, will leave you feeling undervalued, stranded, and unforgivable. Hopefully, the film will remind viewers of the beauty and misfortune that blues came from and August Wilson's timeless work that goes beyond fences. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a solid, vibrant, and extravagant work of art.
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