The difficulties, repressed frustration, and vulnerabilities that come with suffocation during systemic oppression are always present in the work of the late, great playwright August Wilson. He intimately understood the experience of black Americans; tone and cadence, manners and use of AAVE (African American vernacular) in his plays specify that his theatrical experiences are meant to Black audience. IN Ma Raineys black bottom, the third of Wilson’s works to be adapted to the screen, rhythm and blues, is the vehicle through which our characters deal with the daily exposure to white supremacy.
The film opens with a fascinating montage of performances of “Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). She has command of the stage and is loved by it, but the tension rages between the singer and one of her band members, Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his last performance). The trumpeter thirsts for everything Ma has: the art, the spotlight, the applause. The two compete as their bandmates look on, and the upcoming problems are tangible.
The following day, the band is scheduled to record a collection of songs in a studio in Chicago run by the economical and ineffective 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 crucial to having this story told. Colman Domingo as trombonist Cutler adds this film to a series of extraordinary supporting roles and once again lifts what is on the page to new heights. Glynn Turman as Toledo, a pianist who considers race in America and black masculinity, plays beats of misapplied and misunderstood knowledge with grace, dispels and rejects excitement with his natural rhythm. Michael Potts performs just as wonderful work with minimal dialogue as bassist Slow Drag; his agitated expression is a striking storytelling unit.
Like the Levee, the Boseman is multi-layered and electric. So many of his past performances require a sense of royal silence; here he stretches the muscles in ways we have never seen. It’s a joy to see him play ruthless, a character who does not have to accommodate. Levee has a rude but sympathetic charm rooted in unresolved childhood trauma, and as the film revolves around his unstable ambition, Boseman rises to the limelight – a performance so full of life and conviction, it’s a devastating reminder we will not see more of his multifaceted talent. It had not even begun to reach its full potential.
When Ma Rainey arrives with her boyfriend Dussie Mae (Taylor Paige) and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), her ego goes into a boxing match with Levees. Ma is demanding and postpones the recording until her needs are met, just as Levee expresses a dangerous interest in Dussie Mae. All of this pales in comparison to the huge task of recording “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a mission that plays more of a conflicting role than any character could. In pursuit of a perfect record, the song highlights the worst competitive and divisive challenges among this group of people.
Ma is uncompromising and abrasive, and Davis is powerful in the role, her presence is large and noisy, but still controlled – the character takes over when she expresses her struggles. Ma is an absolute diva, and Davis clearly enjoys the material: Her performance is accurate and sure, and her moments of comic levity land every time. Although Ma’s behavior may be read as disliked, she explains her reasoning in a conversation with Cutler: “They don’t care about me. All they want is my voice. I learned that well. And they gon ‘treat me like I will be treated no matter how much it hurt. They out there call me all sorts of names. To call me anything but a child of God. But they can do nothing else, because they do not yet have what they wanted. As soon as they get my voice down on one of those recorders, it’s like I’m a whore. They roll over and put on their pants. They do not need me then. ”
Ma understands her social status as a black woman in the 1920s: she is solely the desire for the entertainment and monetary gain of the white patriarchy. In order to maintain any kind of dignity and just survive, harsh behavior is crucial to getting what she deserves. Levee also believes that these emotions are the key to success, but takes a different approach: By playing within the white system while claiming to understand its pitfalls, he believes he is getting what he wants. But Levee will learn that for black people, this worldview does not work to your advantage.
Theatrical adaptations all too often feel harvested in transferring the magic of a stage play – few places, a limiting structure – to film. Mostly, Ma Raineys black bottom do crossover. It knows exactly where to open it, and the story feels richer as a result. But at other moments, the film slows down – to match the speed of a character that e.g. Pauses to provide background – and the jump does not always land gracefully. However, director George C. Wolfe, a theater artist from New York, never gets in the way of Wilson’s words and compensates for pace problems with beautifully crafted blocking, staging, and camera movement that create an intimate, at the same time space experience. Each actor balances the large scale written for theater, with the intimacy required for the cinema, and their performances larger than life transcend the screen. Everything from the almost musical fluidity of the actors’ interaction with the camera to the sumptuous costumes and production design creates a refreshing experience.
The film ends with a strong, shocking and sharply gloomy tone that crystallizes its philosophy: Moving through a world that values what you can do for it and not the other way around weighs heavily on the psyche. Being black in America goes on a string that, if not stepped in carefully, will leave you feeling underestimated, stranded and unforgiving. Hopefully, the film reminds viewers of the beauty and misfortune that blues comes from, and the timeless work of August Wilson that extends beyond Fence. Packed with soulfully exciting performances, Ma Raineys black bottom is a solid, vibrant and extravagant work of art.
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