“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” opens with a thundering blues performance and ends with a gut punch. Both moments inject fresh energy and righteous fury into the 1982 August Wilson play that launched his 10-part Pittsburgh Cycle, but in between, the movie hews to more familiar turf. An actor’s showcase for Viola Davis as the show-stopping singer and the late Chadwick Boseman as the scheming trumpeter angling to steal her spotlight, director George C. Wolfe’s reverential adaptation livens up the material with sizzling color and vivid closeups. Save for a few digressions, however, Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have put the play into the movie, rather than vice versa.
For Wilson devotees and newbies alike, that’s a sturdy enough combo to let this bittersweet ode to the Mother of Blues strut its stuff. The second adaptation of the Pittsburgh Cycle following Denzel Washington’s sturdy “Fences” treatment (he serves as a producer here), “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” embodies the frustrations of Black artists in a society rigged against them, with the boisterous singer and her combustible band wandering a recording studio on a sweltering Chicago afternoon, squabbling and grandstanding until the final minutes. The result is a stagey chamber piece with occasional flashes of musical intensity and thematic depth to spare.
Outside of a fleeting introduction to Ma Rainey’s dynamic stage presence, the movie spends the bulk of its rapid-fire 94 minutes in the confines of a studio on the Southside of Chicago circa 1927. It’s here that Rainey has been coaxed into recording a few new tracks by her white manager Irvin (a cartoonish Jeremy Shamos) for record executive Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne, all cocked eyebrows and racist stares). But before she gets there, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” belongs to the intricacies of her band, a panoply of spirited jazz musicians led by obsequious Cutler (Colman Domingo), as well as troubled pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), low-key bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and the egotistical Levee, realized by Boseman with ostentatious swagger that hides some deep pain.
Whether snaking around the rehearsal room and studio with devilish glee or casting erotic glances at Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), Levee doesn’t always succeed at stealing the show, but Boseman certainly does. Sauntering in late to the studio while crowing about his glimmering yellow shoes, Levee emits a two-faced grin in almost every scene, as he attempts to usurp Ma’s music by arguing for a wilder improvisatory sound while his bandmates push back.
The posthumous role has more in common with Boseman’s lively turn as a James Brown in “Get On Up” than the more subdued “Black Panther” gig that made him an icon, so audiences may be shocked to see the actor turn up the volume. But he’s a natural as the movie’s central troublemaker, a sly source of entertainment until his subversive attitude becomes a liability.
Though he shrinks in Rainey’s domineering presence like everyone else, Levee provides a source of heated conflict when his bandmates engage in loose banter ahead of the show. The movie’s strongest passage arrives in first act, as the musicians argue through the plight of the Black man in a country still designed to hold him down: “The colored man ought to be doing more,” argues Toledo, given real depth by Turman’s sad, hopeless gaze. Levee doesn’t want to hear it; the character trades solidarity for self-preservation, providing the fundamental divide that gives Wilson’s play such lasting depth.
Rainey’s own entourage, when they finally arrive, operate as little more than handy narrative devices. Her stuttering new nephew (Dusan Brown) mostly hovers on the edge of the frame, squashed by his aunt’s loquacious presence at every turn. The singer’s unabashed lesbianism, radical for its time, is baked into Davis’ magnetic performance. As her arm candy, however, Paige has little to do aside from undulating to the music and toying with Levee’s advances when others look away. (It’s a dispiriting downgrade from the actress’ mesmerizing turn in the forthcoming “Zola,” where her spunky, rebellious edge never lets up.)
Thankfully, Davis herself delivers the most engrossing, inspired transformation of her career: Her eyes caked in black makeup and her body shimmering in sweat, she moves through her scenes with a propulsive force as the whole movie to turns on her every move. And when she finally sings, belting out the title song after a handful of false starts, the actress is so in touch with Rainey’s talent she may as well be communing with the dead.
With much of the original play intact, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” roots its subject at the center of America’s evolving race relations — when slavery was still a recent memory — while showing how many of the concerns from that time remain just as potent decades later. While Rainey doesn’t dominate the movie’s running time, her ability to stand up to white authorities keen on profiting from her voice brings a moral conviction to the material that rings out across the ages. “I don’t stand for no shit,” she says. “They going to treat me the way I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt ‘em.” Even when the men in question continue to exploit her, she remains the most powerful voice in the room, and it’s a blast to watch it reverberate around her.
Yet even with these striking performances on display, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” doesn’t escape its theatrical roots, and sometimes feels stifled by them. Wolfe has worked magic on the stage, most notably with “Angels in America,” but as a filmmaker he’s not the audacious sort. (His prior credit was the mawkish biopic “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”)
Outside of a clever introductory passage that brings old photographs to life, the movie rarely ventures beyond its “filmed play” conceit, and some of the loudest monologues can sound awfully strained when the voices aren’t echoing off the walls in a packed house. Tobias A. Schliesser’s vibrant cinematography works wonders in up close, but has a flatter quality in some of the interstitial moments between the big set pieces, and the movie has a flatter quality whenever the characters venture outside. Likewise, the climactic act of violence has been staged in oddly stilted terms, though the emotion resonates because of its wider context.
All of this would be more concerning if “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” didn’t turn on Wilson’s crackling dialogue and a jazzy pace on par with the music. Above all, the movie amounts to a solid resurrection that doesn’t muck up the bulk of what made the play click in the first place. That’s an especially valuable achievement at a moment when it’s literally impossible to see Wilson’s work or any other on the stage it deserves. His truth-telling cuts deep. “You’re colored and you can make them some money, then you’re alright with them,” Rainey says at a pivotal moment. “Otherwise, you’re just a dog in some alley.”
Rainey avoided that fate — and so did Wilson, whose legacy continues to resonate in a society that demands his sobering voice. The movie finds its own in the stunning finale, a furious indictment of cultural appropriation that registers as one of the great cinematic moments of the year. It’s also a tacit acknowledgement that the anger emanating from Wilson’s work has no reason to subside today.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” opens theatrically on Wednesday, November 25 and starts streaming on Netflix starting Friday, December 18.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.