Back in 2016 when I started reviewing films Denzel Washington released the first in a planned series of adaptations of the theatrical works of August WiIson called “Fences”. That movie was originally announced in 2013 and along with it an adaptation of another Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. It’s been a few years, but the big screen adaptation of that play has finally debuted on Netflix. Directed by George C. Wolfe, the film is also notable as the final movie appearance of the late, great Chadwick Boseman who stars alongside Viola Davis in a tragic but engaging story that takes all the charm of a stage play and adapts it flawlessly to the screen resulting in one of the best movie of 2020.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is named after the real-life song by Rainey herself who was known as the “Mother of the Blues” in her prime. In this film she is played by Viola Davis and finds her way to a recording studio to lay down songs with her band composed of pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), guitarist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and young trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) who seeks to find his own success as a band leader and songwriter. The film takes place throughout the duration of a recording session where the band argues among themselves while Rainey struggles with maintaining control over her art and career. Together the cast and Wolfe provide us with a confined, human experience where generations clash over their experiences with racism in an era where black artists were still seen as inferior to their white counterparts in America.
While they aren’t the only two actors in the movie, this film lives off of the powerhouse performances of Davis and Boseman who each get their own story arcs but are faced with the same problem as they attempt to maintain control of their artistry in the 1920s when segregation was still a common practice. While we see Rainey portrayed as a diva, we also feel for her struggles to maintain control of her material and record the way she wants while her white manager and the white recording studio owner have clear issues with her assumed superiority over them. Davis, as usual, is incredible and while she feels underutilized at times she makes the most of every moment she is on screen embodying Rainey and her image and attitude perfectly. Boseman on the other hand portrays a much younger and more relatable character as a trumpeter who has faced racism and is scared by it. His goal is simply to be taken seriously as a musician and that desire erupts in one single day into a debate that will change his life forever. I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of these performances earn Oscar credit. Boseman alone turns in one of his very best outings ending his much-too-short career on the highest of notes.
Story-wise, this film plays out similar to what would be called a “bottle episode” on television where all the action take place in one room. While this movie’s plot doesn’t completely take place in a recording studio, it benefits from having originally been a stage play which confines much of the story to a single day and thus a single location with varying rooms. The rooms themselves are built to provide a sense of claustrophobia, which is seen in how the characters feel in the rooms as well. What I found interesting is how this plays in the generational gap seen among the band members. The elder members are more used to racial injustice and thus a room where they feel captive is much more acceptable to them. Boseman’s Levee on the other hand is constantly trying to open a door in the studio which serves as a symbolic representation of how the world has kept him locked out. These small touches layer the story with great social subtext especially concerning the time period where it is set. The confined space also puts much more emphasis on the actors and their blocking which is what a movie like this really needed as it’s a film about human conversation and shared experiences as much as it is about the blatant racism of the 20s. Seeing how they interact and how close they get before going over the edge is a powerful way to showcase how these characters feel in the moment and ups the tension when appropriate. Seeing the band discuss their lives with each other and how Ma Rainey talks about her art and career, also how quickly conversations erupts into debate and then back to peaceful conversation, feels so raw and genuine. It truly feels like the actors are playing off each other and having real talks right there in front of the camera rather than going by a script. The pacing also works to the story’s favor keeping things confined to a brisk 1.5 hours wasting few moments as the story flows seamlessly from scene to scene, conflict to conflict and interaction to interaction.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a fast paced, well-acted, well-shot, well-written and impressively poignant film adaptation that showcases themes of artistic control and the racism of the 20s while also presenting us with an engaging human experience where we get to see people who actually feel like real people discuss their histories with prejudice in the confines of a single day. The ending leaves us on a tragic note that has us dwelling on how simple societal sins can lead good people down dark paths and that might be the most powerful message the movie has to share. Like “Fences” before it, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is evidence that in the right hands adapting a stage production to the screen can provide us with some genuinely effective material. If this is what we have to look forward to in the future I can’t wait to see what Denzel Washington’s August Wilson series brings us next.