Brendan Da Costa

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020) Poster

Title: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom


Directed by: George C. Wolfe


Written by: Ruben Santiago-Hudson


Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo & Michael Potts


Produced by: Todd Black, Denzel Washington & Dany Wolf

“‘Black America‘ is at the heart of     this film.”

Reel Talk - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)

December 3, 2021
by Brendan Da Costa

It looks like theatre. It moves like jazz. It feels like the blues. It’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and it means business.

 

A group of blues musicians prepare for a recording session with the legendary Ma Rainey but tensions flare as the trumpets blare. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name and stars Viola Davis (Ma Rainey) and Chadwick Boseman (Levee).

 

Denzel Washington produced Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as part of a ten-picture deal with HBO in which he agreed to bring some of his Hollywood shine to August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays. The deal was announced back in 2013 and 2016 saw Washington’s opening salvo in Fences—a film that he produced, directed and starred in alongside Viola Davis. While Fences felt like “The Denzel Washington Show”—thank goodness the man is as talented as he is or it would have been a real snore—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom places the source material in the spotlight.

 

For all of the film’s artistic achievements, it is August Wilson’s bold perspective that shines brightest. Wilson’s deep love of “Black America”—at once empathetic and critical—is what drives this film. Wilson’s heart is at the very core of both Chadwick Boseman’s and Viola Davis’ performances. Both actors show a clear understanding of Wilson’s work and his intent in every line. It is also Wilson’s heart that fills and colours every frame; the set is Wilsonian, the costuming, even the colour grading.

“Wilson’s heart is at the very core of both Chadwick Boseman’s and Viola Davis’ performances.”

All of those achievements are a testament to two things: Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay and George C. Wolfe’s direction.

 

Santiago-Hudson created a near word-for-word stage-to-screen adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. While that might seem like lazy writing to some, it is a shrewd decision on Santiago-Hudson’s part to faithfully translate Wilson’s work. It’s a well-written and tight play in which each line in each scene is a deliberate note, building to something bigger in Wilson’s blues orchestra. In the words of Ma Rainey herself, “You supposed to play the song the way I sing it. The way everybody else play it. You ain’t supposed to go off by yourself and play what you want.”

“The film’s supporting cast had more than a few solos of their own.”

The only substantial deviation from Wilson’s play—at least, the only one that I could see—was a pretty pointless one. Santiago-Hudson took a little liberty with Ma Rainey’s relationship with the fictional Dussie May. While not entirely a fabrication for the film or the play—there was speculation during her lifetime that Ma Rainey had homosexual relationships—it is an ultimately purposeless adaptation that adds nothing to the character or the story, like a mediocre riff off of an otherwise pleasant melody. Because there really isn’t much to go on besides conjecture and selective interpretation of some facts, the film would probably have been better served leaving the interpretation of Ma Rainey’s and Dussie May’s relationship up to audiences—as Wilson did—instead of making any sort of asseveration of its own.

All the same, Santiago-Hudson’s Oscar snub for Adapted Screenplay is understandable. His job was less about recreating or reinterpreting and more about preserving. Nevertheless, it’s too bad.

 

Director George C. Wolfe, however, absolutely deserved a nod for his direction and the snub is pretty inexplicable. Wolfe’s mastery of stage direction—gained through decades of experience—was on full display for the full 94minutes of the film’s runtime. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom came swinging and swaying onto the screen with all the life of blues and jazz because of Wolfe’s strong vision of how it should look, feel and move. Wolfe also extracted great performances out of his cast.

 

Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of Levee was just as Wilson intended; a sympathetic villain. Levee is headstrong and proud, immature and boyish. He is his own worst enemy and you want to scream at him the whole time that if only he could close his mouth and open his ears, he might learn how to get out of his own way. Your frustration with Levee is testament to the perfection with which Boseman’s performed in that role.

“… Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom places the source material in the spotlight.”

While it’s a great turn for Boseman, it’s coming off of a year that had astonishing performances from Joaquin Phoenix in Joker and Adam Driver in Marriage Story. Comparatively, Boseman’s performance is a little underwhelming. Nevertheless, Boseman snagged a posthumous Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture — Drama and is likely to claim the Academy Award as well.

 

Viola Davis’ Ma Rainey is one of her most transformative roles to date—and not simply because of hair, makeup and costuming. Davis pretty well loses herself in this stylized version of the blues legend. Certainly, the character is one-note—the strictures of Wilson’s play demand it—but that doesn’t diminish Davis’ performance.

And the stars of the film weren’t the only ones hitting the high notes. The film’s supporting cast had more than a few solos of their own. Glynn Turman, in particular, managed to always find just the right key.

 

Because the film feels so much like the play it is adapted from, it would have benefited tremendously from the setting of a movie theatre. Audiences might have felt more like they were enjoying a good jazz concert instead of watching some highfalutin Hollywood film. Regardless, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is more than good enough to tap your feet to—or to spend a Netflix night on.