‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’: A Blistering Viola Davis Croons Alongside Chadwick Boseman In His Stirring Final Role
Some artists leave us too soon, yet are granted by fate a final bow worthy of their tremendous gifts. Chadwick Boseman is given such an opportunity with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” This rich Netflix production of legendary playwright August Wilson’s play is the perfect showcase for just how far Boseman had risen as an actor before cancer took him away earlier this year. But see the film because it is that and so much more. It is an evocative take on Wilson’s blistering words and a sobering meditation on the exploitation of Black America’s sound. And at the center of it all is Viola Davis as a titanic Ma Rainey, the blues pioneer with the look of a force of nature.
It’s a sultry day in 1927 Chicago and a band gathers at a recording studio to cut a record with Ma. Some of them are experienced veterans like Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). Trumpet player Levee (Boseman) is the younger hotshot in his early ‘30s who boasts about trying to rearrange the signature tune they’re recording today, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” into something more high-spirited. Levee is convinced the white record executives running this show like Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) will soon grant him a big band to cater to the new dance music city dwellers desire. Ma’s own white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) just wants her to arrive on time to make the recording in order to sell tons of it. When Ma finally arrives she’s not in the mood to be ordered around. She’s accompanied by younger lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). It’s going to be a rough session. Ma barely trusts the corporate heads running things, they can’t even have a Coke ready for her in the studio, and she wants Sylvester, who stutters, to record the opening dialogue of the song. She will also clash with Levee’s self-assured boldness, as he also starts making eyes at Dussie.
The original 1984 stage production of the late August Wilson’s play formed part of his “Century Cycle,” in which he wrote a play meant to capture the Black American experience in nearly every decade of the 20th century. Choosing Ma Rainey as a subject was a brilliant touch because as a historical figure she connects to so many avenues of ideas, from the rise of recorded Black artists to the blues becoming its own genre in that recording tradition. Director George C. Wolfe and writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who has a long track record himself as an actor, meticulously adapt Wilson’s work into cinema driven by language. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler films 1927, the confined world of the recording studio and the locker room where the musicians wait for Ma with warm oak colors that have grit and nostalgia. Like the 2016 adaptation of “Fences” by Denzel Washington (who is also a producer on this one), Wolfe frames the film elegantly but allows Wilson’s dialogue to propel it. Wolfe explained to Entertainment Voice how the environment influenced his voice’s setting for the adaptation. “We talked about Chicago as this urban center and for all the people like Ma and her band, Chicago is an alien environment. The play was originally set in winter. I chose to set in the summer because I was very intrigued by what heat does to the human body in an urban landscape which is nothing but concrete and brick,” said Wolfe.
One of Wilson’s gifts was being able to capture an era and even feature major cultural icons like Ma, while keeping the prime focus on more intimate, you could say background personalities. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is about the musicians and lives swirling around the central figure. The band became a microcosm of Black American life in the ’20s. This is writing and staging of a high caliber, just look at the small details that say so much about everyone. Levee arrives at the studio sporting new shoes that feel as if they represent his potential to move up. If Slow Drag accidentally steps on them it’s worse than a slap to the face. The more experienced musicians like Toledo get amused and irritated by Levee’s naïve confidence in his own brilliance. He sees the others as old fogies stuck in the past with their more traditional blues style, and they can only shake their heads at the kid really thinking he can rewrite Ma’s music. Boseman embodies the role with a stunning precision. His mannerisms are carefully chosen and he evokes pity and vigor. Two monologues have a stirring power: One where he describes watching his mother be assaulted by white men as a small boy and another a harangue against God, told with a controlled intensity perfect for Wilson’s rhythms. Even his seduction of Dussie has a particular, erotic subtly to it. Levee isn’t a scoundrel, just the ambitious type who lacks more self-control. He has the talent, just not any wisdom, yet. What a great actor Boseman was, so refined and focused. This will last as one of the great recent final performances. “Chadwick was interesting because I saw him in the rehearsal begin to peel away whatever layers that existed between him and the role, so by the time we were filming he had located inside of himself Levee and was able to make himself completely available and vulnerable to the character,” said Wolfe.
Fittingly enough, the great show stealer is Viola Davis who disappears into Ma Rainey. There is nothing naïve or foolish about her. With gold-capped teeth, perpetually sweating and demanding her Coke before recording, Davis’s rendition of the blues giant is a brilliant channeling of a historical figure. She has to treat the others like children almost. The band because they can be pushovers and the recording studio suits because she’s experienced enough to sense the racist opportunism hiding beneath their fake, overly eager praise. When it’s time to get paid others are dutiful towards their white bosses, Ma knows she has authority through her worth as a moneymaker, and she uses it to demand fair play. But even icons have their weak points and Ma gets supremely jealous when others notice Dussie. It doesn’t help that Dussie likes to dance in front of the band during takes. Ma’s sexual preference for women was well-known even in the ‘20s, and the film treats the theme without overemphasizing it. The theme here isn’t even Ma’s sexuality, but how she was who she was without giving a damn. She makes everyone allow Sylvester to record a song introduction, even if he stutters, because she knows this will help him overcome it.
But all these great personalities are in the end, living under the shadow of great systems and machinations. They may finish their recording session, but the white owners control the records. Even Levee begs until the end to get his own band. Later we will see the devastating reality about how many Black artists wrote amazing music only to see it bought for scraps so white bands could actually record them. In the arts Black Americans have had to assert themselves in a terrain where other interests will greedily exploit their talent yet deny them equality. The tragedy of Boseman’s Levee is how he dreams big but ignores the nature of the hand that feeds. Ma knows which is why she demands her payment like a worker demanding the yield of their labor. While singing the title song, Davis gives Ma the smiles and grins of a woman who does what she does because she loves it. She feels it in every bone of her body. In one of Wilson’s most eloquent yet small moments, Ma tells Toledo the blues are a tonic. The music’s power isn’t in making you forget life’s sorrows, but in giving them a melody, in making us feel less alone. Colman told Entertainment Voice how the set itself took on a spiritual ambiance to face the power of the text. “You needed so much humor. We laughed so much around each other. Especially around these intense scenes, we had to laugh, man. We had to reach some scripture sometimes. Denzel Washington would come in with some of it and say, ‘read that.’ We had to get our souls right together,” he said.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a great film for its themes and language, all brought together by keen talents. But before admiring all of its technique, its immediate power is in seeing Chadwick Boseman one last time. This is a role that wonderfully utilizes all of his range as an actor. If there is melancholy in the subtext of the story, it is enhanced by knowing we’re watching an actor giving it all in a way we will never see from him again. Yet like Wilson’s play and Ma Rainey’s music, Boseman leaves behind a body of work that will endure. How lucky we are that his final bow is such a potent slice of life, full of its injustices, misguided hopes, unforgettable personalities and melodies.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” releases Nov. 25 in select cities and begins streaming Dec. 18 on Netflix.