“Life ain’t shit. You can put it in a paper bag and carry it around with you. It ain’t got no balls. Now death? Death got some style. Death will kick your ass and make you wish you never been born. That’s how bad death is. But you can rule over life. Life ain’t nothing.”
Along with her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), the so-called “Mother of the Blues,” has headed north to Chicago with her band—bandleader and trombone player, Cutler (Coleman Domingo); the wise, piano-playing Toledo (Glynn Turman); cool-headed bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts); and the electric, starry-eyed, trouble-making trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman)—to record an album. Once there, Ma Rainey and the band sweat in Chicago’s sweltering summer heat. All the while boiling beneath the sun burning high above them in a grey-white sky, Ma and the band must deal with oppressive white management—Ma’s manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and record maker Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne)—who, clearly, are only interested in making money and exploiting Ma Rainey.
One of the best decisions made in the making of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was that of director George C. Wolfe who elected to simply provide the film’s actors with an unobtrusive cinematic stage from which they could display their acting prowess. The idea of a director allowing their actors to actually act as they saw fit shouldn’t be a novel idea, but the directorial transparency exhibited by Wolfe in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t nearly as commonplace in modern filmmaking as it probably should be. Wolfe’s influence isn’t lost so much as it is tempered and subtle. You see, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a movie that’s packed tight with powerful performances; Wolfe, fully aware of the talent oozing from his star-studded cast, focused on complementing his actors rather than controlling them. The artistic freedom provided to Davis, Boseman, and co. is apparent.
For the ninety-or-so minutes that I sat watching this film, I was completely immersed in the story; for the entire length of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I was an active participant. This, I imagine, is how a film adaptation of a stage play ought to feel.
As Ma Rainey, Viola Davis is stunning. Powerful and unapologetic, Davis portrays a tremendously talented and self-aware woman who refuses to take shit from the White man. Like Ma, Davis is a force to be reckoned with throughout the film, but, when interacting with other actors, she never upstages, as her acting style elevates those around her, making every scene unforgettable.
A great deal of this film takes place beneath the recording space in a stone-walled band rehearsal room. Here, Levee, Cutler, Toledo, and Slow Drag converse at great length, more often than not, Levee talking at his bandmates rather than talking with them. Being stuck in a small prison-like room with four men while they exorcise their proverbial demons was equally as discomforting as it was delightful. Rhythmic lines of dialogue, fired like bullets from machineguns, ricocheted and echoed within the near-claustrophobic space in which they were delivered. Being surrounded by this sort of verbal combat—immersed in the battle thanks to slow-panning shots and long single-location scenes—provided a rush that I have not often experienced in my time as an avid moviegoer.
Chadwick Boseman’s performance, here, is bittersweet. While he manages to further elevate an already powerful script with an earth-shaking performance, bearing witness to said performance, knowing that there will be no more like it, is utterly heartbreaking. Prior to seeing this film, I was saddened, knowing that Boseman would be unable to reprise his role as T’Challa, the King of Wakanda and hero known as Black Panther, in future MCU films. After watching Boseman deliver his spectacular performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I realize just how narrow-minded my thinking was…The interactions shared between bandmates continue to grow in their intensity until, finally, tensions are so high that something, or someone, has to give. You’ll know the moment that I’m talking about when you watch it, but near the film’s end, I found myself sitting at the edge of my seat, heart pounding, breathless. Boseman, Domingo, Potts, and Turman contributed to the framing of this moment equally.
Again, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is fine example of what film adaptation of a stage play should accomplish. If you are at all interested in seeing this film, or the play that inspired it, you won’t be disappointed.
The Bottom Line
Teeming with intense performance and thought-provoking commentary, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a timely and well-crafted cinematic tour de force that’s not to be missed.