'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom': Film Review

Viola Davis
David Lee / Netflix

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' was nominated for a number of awards, including best feature.

Powerhouse performances in a bluesy hymn of sorrow.

Chadwick Boseman makes his final screen appearance starring opposite Viola Davis in this adaptation of August Wilson's play about a fraught recording session with the "Mother of the Blues" in jazz-age Chicago.

Viola Davis burns a hole in the screen projecting the indomitable pride and hard-won self-worth of the legendary early 20th century blues singer named in the title of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, one of 10 plays that comprise August Wilson's epic cycle depicting 100 years of African American experience. But it's Chadwick Boseman as a cocky trumpeter brutally demeaned by the white recording industry who delivers the most explosive thunder and searing pain. The late actor pours every ounce of himself, emotionally and physically, into his final performance, breathing tragic grandeur into George C. Wolfe's lovingly made, flawlessly cast film of Wilson's music-infused drama.

Extensively trimmed in the screenplay by frequent Wilson interpreter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the adaptation loses some of the roiling symphonic breadth of its stage origins in this tight 90-minute distillation, without entirely disguising those roots. The lyrical arias that are a signature part of the playwright's work still register very much as heightened theatrical monologues. But it remains a uniquely powerful reflection on the struggle for dignity of Black Americans during the Great Northward Migration, hitting raw nerves of inequality that continue to resonate today. Netflix will give the film a limited theatrical release Nov. 25 before its Dec. 18 debut on the platform.

Shot by Tobias A. Schliessler in sumptuous, burnished tones that seem to inhale the very air of jazz-age Chicago on a sweaty afternoon in 1927, the movie in a handful of scenes steps outside the recording studio and rehearsal room where the entire play takes place. The opening in particular gives director Wolfe an opportunity to display the electrifying fascination with the history of African American performing arts that has been a trademark of his distinguished stage career.

We first see Ma Rainey, her face caked in runny makeup, goopy false eyelashes and a mouthful of crooked gold teeth, strutting her stuff in a Georgia tent show while an audience of all ages, male and female, claps and cheers and calls out responses to her saucy delivery and earthy sensuality. "I'm on my way, crazy as I can be," she sings, as Wolfe cuts to a montage of newspaper headlines like "Bound for the Promised Land," accompanied by evocative images of the Black Migration. The same song continues on a city theater stage up North, where Ma's ecstatic shimmying is now backed by a chorus of provocative dancers.

With deft economy, that sequence also indicates the principal character dynamics. Ma's young girlfriend Dussie Mae (Zola discovery Taylour Paige) dances with abandon in the wings, exchanging bedroom glances with horn player Levee (Boseman), a dangerous flirtation that doesn't escape the attention of bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone. When Levee steps forward for his trumpet solo, Ma wastes no time literally snatching the spotlight back on herself. Clearly, there's only room for one star in this act.

Right from the start, the volcanic Davis holds nothing back. This is a quite different character to what we've seen from her — notably so from the plain-spoken, self-sacrificing wife whose quiet indignation bursts forth in Denzel Washington's 2016 film of Wilson's Fences, which won her an Oscar. Her Ma Rainey is an imperious woman of extravagant appetites, her generous girth clothed in luxuriantly hued velvets and flashy jewelry. She's also fiercely defiant about her sexuality, unashamed to parade Dussie Mae around in ways that make her ownership of the shapely kewpie doll plain for all to see.

Ma takes regal pride in her status as the "Mother of the Blues" and is dismissive of imitators or of those, like Levee, who want to update her woozy, unornamented vocals and jug-band style with the more syncopated jazz sound gaining popularity in the North. As she swaggers through the lobby of an upscale Black hotel with Dussie Mae on one arm and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) on the other, the flaming contempt in her eyes dares anyone to challenge her, while also conveying the heavy load of all that she's had to overcome. She has no illusions about white producers seeing her as anything more than the commodity of her voice.

Davis gives a scorching performance, yet under Wolfe's supple direction, she allows space for every key character in the ensemble to sing with equal clarity. Along with Santiago-Hudson and the entire exemplary cast, Wolfe understands the choral nature of Wilson's language, and its unmatched ability to turn the workaday speech of Black Americans into soaring poetry.

Ma's diva reputation has white record company owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) anticipating trouble even before the singer and her entourage show up late for a Chicago recording session, while her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) nervously reassures him it's under control. Cutler arrives on time with pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts), who set up in the basement rehearsal room to go over the song list. Levee's indifference to punctuality, stopping en route to blow a week's pay on a sharp pair of shoes, suggests he already sees himself as a star about to break out.

As is generally the case with Wilson, the talk is more significant than any conventional plotting. There are tense delays caused by Ma's insistence that despite his pronounced stutter, Sylvester will record the spoken intro to the song that gives the film its title, and there's a standoff over Irvin's wish to use Levee's dance arrangement, which Ma shoots down with a ferocious glare. Her threats to walk at any time can be prompted by something as trivial as Irvin forgetting her request for a chilled bottle of Coke.

During one of the afternoon's many holdups, Ma reflects on the blues and the fundamental nature of it that white people don't get: "They hear it come out, but they don't know how it got there. They don't understand that's life's way of talking. You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life."

Wilson's play, and in turn, Santiago-Hudson's abridged but faithful screenplay, is a blues piece for multiple voices. It's in the exchanges among the band in the rehearsal room that its themes of racism, identity, Black struggle and artistic ambition really take flight. These are not characters recalling their own often painful experiences or those of their communities to illuminate points for the audience. They are full-blooded, richly individualized men who talk as "a way of understanding life," just like the blues.

While Cutler does his best to keep the peace and Slow Drag aims to stay in a mellow neutral space, the chief conflict is between philosophizing old-timer Toledo, who believes Black folks spend too much time in the pursuit of pleasure, and temperamental Levee, who believes he's owed everything life has to give. His side dealings with Sturdyvant to record his compositions and his aim to start his own band set him apart from the others, who just want to stay in their lanes.

Each of them has his moment of revelation, with the wonderful Turman bringing a whole history of bruising insights to his thoughts on the Black man being the leftovers in the stew of life. But it's Levee's truculent claim that he knows how to handle the white man, that he won't be brought down by the legacy of racism, that makes him the figure of greatest pathos. His still-enraged account of witnessing a horrific attack on his mother at age 8 cements both the character's hunger and his blistering resentment. Boseman is wrung out, emotionally spent by the end of that titanic speech, and it resonates throughout until the crushing blow when his aspirations are dismantled.

The pitiless betrayal of the American Dream is shared by the majority of Wilson's characters to one degree or another, even by Ma, despite her success. It's etched across Davis' face in the singer’s dead-eyed, sour, fatigued-down-to-her-bones expression as she drives away from the recording session in the back of her fancy car, her gaudy makeup a derisive mask. But it cuts deepest in self-destructive Levee's arc, yielding a stunning explosion of heart-stopping violence.

Washington, who serves as lead producer here, has expressed his hope to make screen versions of all 10 plays in Wilson's Century Cycle. Like the film of Fences, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is too inextricably welded to its theatrical conception to become fully cinematic, even with Schliessler's lustrous visuals and the deluxe trappings of Mark Ricker's period production design, Ann Roth's gorgeous costumes and Branford Marsalis' jazzy underscoring. But watching actors of this caliber lose themselves in characters of such aching humanity is ample reward, with Boseman's towering work standing as a testament to a blazing talent lost too soon. It's impossible to watch his astonishingly gutsy performance without the sorrowful feeling that he's acting like he's running out of time.

Production companies: Mundy Lane Entertainment, Escape Artists
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown, Joshua Harto, Quinn VanAntwerp
Director: George C. Wolfe
Screenwriters: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on the play by August Wilson
Producers: Denzel Washington, Todd Black, Dany Wolf
Executive producer: Constanza Romero
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler

Production designer: Mark Ricker
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Music: Branford Marsalis
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Rated R, 94 minutes