Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
George C. Wolfe
Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Play: August Wilson)
Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Dusan Brown
There are few great American playwrights and even fewer who are Black. August Wilson has emerged as a defining voice of his generation with numerous plays that have earned praise from numerous luminaries within the theater industry. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second adaptation in a planned series of eight films pulled from Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. Whether this film enhances the chances that the remaining six will be made is uncertain as some of the more frustrating elements come directly from the limitations of adapting plays for the big screen.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in 1927 Chicago where Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her accompanying band have gathered to record an album for a white record producer (Jonny Coyle). While Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) have experienced much of what life has given and taken from them, young Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) thinks he will be the next big thing, attempting to turn the recording session into an album geared towards his style of effervescent jazz rather than Ma’s more luxurious blues sound. Ma cannot let the young upstart take control and uses her clout to quash every attempt Levee makes to sell it.
As the film progresses, Ma, Levee, and Toledo have impressive monologues explaining their backstories with gusto, laying out the plight of Black Americans in this period of history, not so far removed from the Civil War as many would have hoped. Boseman delivers a magnetic performance in what would be his final one. His cocksure Levee thinks the world owes him for the mistreatments inflicted on his father and mother, declaring that he alone knows how to sell records and engage with Black audiences who have started to become a purchasing force in their own right. Davis is the confident and egocentric Ma Rainey, a woman who has spent years cultivating her voice and image and turning it into a commodity that the record producers cannot ignore. Her performance feels more combative than any she’s done before, making it feel unique.
While these titans of acting clash in explosive ways, Domingo and Turman try to tone down their bombast with the subtlety of their personalities and histories. While Domingo is a fine, calming influence, Turman is the clear stand out in the supporting cast. His pianist is subtle and endearing, a performance rooted in pragmatism, passion, and an old man’s years of wisdom distilled into what Levee feels is a dismissive tone.
These fascinating character constructs are one of the reasons Wilson’s plays are so effective and provocative. Director George C. Wolfe can’t quite see past that, though, and relies entirely on the written medium as influence, barely diverting the audience from the action to give a firm foundation for them to understand the social and economic climate in which the film is set. One has to already be familiar with this period of history to get the entire impact of its importance. The opening scene holds some promise as a pair of Black men are running through a forest, the sound of dogs barking loudly in the distance. We are, at first, certain they are being chased as escaped slaves, but as we see their final destination, we understand that rather than running from something, they are running to something. Ma Rainey’s show. Had the film managed to retain this level of juxtaposition and symbolic splendor, it might have broken away from its theatrical roots.
Throughout cinema history, adapting plays and other literary works to the big screen has been a constant. One of the biggest struggles has been the criticism that they do not open the stories up to broader themes or locales. Wolfe’s inability to move beyond the stage with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom keeps the film from being easily elevated alongside many now-classic stage-to-screen adaptations like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, projects that felt a might stage-bound, but still managed to come alive in their own rights. Being limited to three primary set locations makes it hard to break away from the proceedings and get some deeper context.
A quick trip to a local shop to purchase sodas briefly gives the audience a taste of what’s going on around these characters in their downtown Chicago locale, as do the brief scenes where Black citizens from the North look askance at the nouveau riche from the South. This all touches on an element of the cultural environment of Chicago at the time, but ultimately feels like a meager attempt to set the piece without delving into them more broadly.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom succeeds in numerous ways, but by failing to expand itself beyond the core themes of the play and tackle some broader social context it makes the film feel limited and contained. A more successful production could have spun the events into something more generally appealing, as much a rebuke of the foundations of the recording industry as a commentary on the entirely different worlds that exist between the obvious prejudice in southern states and the subtle prejudices in the north. Perhaps that isn’t the film Wolfe and company wanted to tell.
Even so, there’s only so much subtext that can be transferred from the stage to the screen. Great performances can only do so much to define a film and while it’s wonderful to see Wilson’s body of work recognized in bolder and more accessible ways, a missed opportunity exists at the end of the film that the last act turn and the final scene don’t quite synergize. It ultimately leaves the audience with more questions than answers. And for a film like this, the journey isn’t quite shouldn’t be vastly more important than destination.
Guarantees: Actor (Chadwick Boseman)
Probables: Picture, Actress (Viola Davis), Supporting Actor (Glynn Turman), Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Sound Mixing
Potentials: Directing, Film Editing, Production Design
January 5, 2021