Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is stagy but electric

Chadwick Boseman (in his last role) and Viola Davis do battle for most formidable performance in this August Wilson adaptation.

I suppose it’s not really much of a surprise that Netflix has made play adaptations a recurring component of its slate. TV producers did the same thing at the advent of TV and have pretty much reserved theatrical adaptations to the small screen ever since. There have been great theatrical adaptations on the silver screen in the past, but the similarities between the staginess of certain forms of television and the inherent staginess of nearly every play adaptation have made them a perfect fit. We are, simply, more likely to accept the contrivances and physical limitations of the stage on our televisions than we are on the silver screen. Because Netflix’s MO is essentially to erase the line between the two, it makes sense that they would bankroll projects that come across as obvious transpositions like The Prom and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an adaptation of a play of the same name written by August Wilson.

I’ve never read or seen Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom but I’ve read a few plays by August Wilson, and I have to admit that while they’re often great plays, they’re not obvious choices for adaptation from a purely functional point of view. They have limited sets, few characters, lots of monologues… in short, they feel like plays, and by all accounts George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have chosen to keep the story’s stagebound qualities intact for the film. 

Set almost entirely in a white-run recording studio in 1927 Chicago, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom centres on a recording session for hallowed blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). The band she’s been paired with consists of three old-timers (Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts) and one hot-headed younger trumpet player named Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final role). The three older men are content simply showing up and playing what’s asked of them, but Levee has bigger dreams. He wants to lead his own band, write his own music and move the style of the day away from what he considers antiquated “jug band” music. Levee’s desire for upward mobility clashes with nearly everyone else’s values: the band members, who simply see this as a job, the studio owners, who most likely have a very narrow, white-oriented market for the songs, and especially with Ma herself, who runs her sessions with an iron fist.

Behind this relatively simple facade is a complex and often painful exploration of race in America. The older musicians consider they have plenty — that they have enough to have a good time and keep their heads above water, and though they don’t really defer to the studio owners, they see their partnership as a mutually beneficial annoyance. Levee, on the other hand, wants to fight for a bigger piece. He’s been disrespected and trod upon by white society, but he also feels the same way about the old-timers and their attitude towards him. What begins as playful tension (whatever the 1927 blues scene version of “OK Boomer” might have been called) soon turns into a resentful battle of wits, with the titular Ma Rainey looming large on the outskirts of the conflict. Like the musicians, Ma Rainey is Black, but she knows she’s worth something to white society, even if it means she’s being used on some level.

Though her name is right there in the title, Rainey isn’t necessarily even the main character of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, though Davis plays her with such fire and bracing charisma that it’s hard to deny she doesn’t run the show. It’s Boseman, however, who is likely to get the lion’s share of attention for the film, not just because it has proven to be his last one, but because he gives such an impassioned and lived-in performance. Rail-thin and looking about half his actual age, Boseman tears through the dialogue with gusto, creating a character that feels half like a conman and half like a revolutionary. It’s tempting, as it always is, to read into an actor’s last performance enough to shape it into an obituary, but I don’t think that’s the case here. It’s simply a great performance from an actor who still had plenty of great performances to give.

Where Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom falters is not in its performance or in its text but rather in the inelegance of its move from stage to screen. When a character launches into a monologue, we can practically feel the stage lights change and the rest of the cast take a step back; when a character exits a scene, they simply feel like they’re stepping off-stage. Though plenty of work has been done to give the sets and costumes the right look, there’s still something stiff and stilted in the way Wolfe goes about staging the scenes. The screenplay still bears the marks of once having been written for the stage, but the direction also doesn’t do much to stamp them out. It makes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feel uneven and sometimes a little less than engrossing. One almost wishes that the film had fully embraced the abstraction of the stage at that point.

On the other hand, I’m glad that streaming offers a place for movies like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to exist — even in this strange fashion. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a film about a type of blues almost unidentifiable when compared to the electrified bar-band music we now understand to be the blues, and yet it remains entirely relevant about the way white power structures exploit Black artists and musicians as essentially a means to an end. It’s telling that something so outwardly old-fashioned can still feel ripped from the headlines. ■

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix as of Friday, Dec. 18. Watch the trailer below:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feat. Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman

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