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Non-Review Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Perhaps Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom offers an illustration of how times have changed.

The film exists as part of the same production deal that brought Fences to cinemas just four years ago. Denzel Washington signed a deal with HBO to produce screen adaptations of all ten of August Wilson’s plays, bringing one of America’s core dramatists to as wide an audience as possible with the highest quality production. Even without that specific context, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels like a companion piece to Fences; they are both films adapting Wilson, produced by Washington and starring Viola Davis.

A play of note…

However, while Fences was a major theatrical release distributed by Paramount, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has gone direct to Netflix. While the film will have a limited theatrical run where that is possible, it will primarily stream online. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is still a lavish production with a top tier cast working from strong material. However, as with the release of The Boys in the Band on Netflix earlier in this awards season, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom illustrates that even in the four years since Fences, the market for these sorts of productions has migrated to streaming.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the sort of clean and uncluttered performance-driven adult-skewing film that might have enjoyed a wide release in years past, but now it seems impossible to imagine the film anywhere but on a service like Netflix.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not a radical reworking of the source material, and there is an understanding that the cinematic adaptation exists largely as a vehicle for Wilson’s dialogue and characters. After all, the basic set-up of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is inherently theatrical. Most of the action unfolds within a confined space with a limited set of characters; a band rehearsing in a recording studio, waiting for the eponymous blues singer to arrive. Tensions and temperatures rise, and things quickly threaten to boil over.

Indeed, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is arguably at its weakest in the few moments where director George C. Wolfe tries to emphasise the cinematic elements of this adaptation. Sweeping camera shots and intense long takes are part of cinematic grammar, but when focusing on a tight cast on an enclosed set, they only underscore the theatrical nature of the staging. A veteran of stage as much as screen, Wolfe is at his strongest when he gets out of his own way and allows Wilson’s writing and the cast’s performance to carry the film.

As with various other cinematic adaptations of beloved plays – including Doubt, The Boys in the Band and Fences – there is a lot to recommend this approach. After all, there’s a lot of meat in Wilson’s script. The story is set in Chicago in the 1920s, roughly a generation removed from the trauma of the Civil War and in the wake of a mass migration of African Americans seeking to escape the poverty and violence of the South. The musicians that make up Rainey’s band (and even Rainey herself) understand the itinerant nature of this existence.

As with Fences, there’s a weighty meditation on the question of African American identity in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, as the characters dwell on the scars both physical and mental that these historical traumas have inflicted upon them. This tension simmers through even seemingly innocuous conversations, as an early argument breaks out between band members about who their target market is. The brash young trumpeter Levee argues that they should be playing for audiences in Harlem, while Slow Drag argues that they also play to Memphis and Birmingham.

Microphoning it in.

Indeed, there are shades of generational conflict to be found in this disagreement, as Levee criticises the older members of the band for failing to keep up with his energetic arrangement of the title sound. “You’re playing in the wrong time!” Levee complains. “You going to tell us how to play?” responds trombone player Cutler. “We been playing since before you were born.” Levee is convinced that this is a new world with new opportunities, and it in the midst of trying to sell his own songs to the white studio owners as a possible way out of poverty.

The older band members are somewhat more cynical, but they are perhaps wiser. Rainey herself refuses to buy into the myth of progress in the North. “As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on,” she tells Cutler as she engages in a series of power plays with the white management. “Ain’t got no use for me then. I know what I’m talking about.” She complains directly to her manager Irvin, threatening to return to the South, “I don’t like it up here no ways.”

The write stuff.

Indeed, as one might expect in the context of a story about the blues during the twenties, the issues of exploitation and appropriation comes into play, the eagerness with which white audiences will seize on black art while ignoring and dismissing black artists. “Hell, she can’t even get a cab up here in the North,” Cutler tells Levee, a sentiment that is literalised in one of the film’s best (albeit small) additions to the stage play that finds a member of the band taking Rainey’s nephew to buy some refreshments from a local grocery store.

There are moments when Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is perhaps a little too obvious or too heavy-handed in its symbolism. At one point, Cutler regales his band mates with the story of Reverend Gates, the black religious leader who was forced to dance for the amusement of a white mob. The parallels with Rainey and Levee as entertainers is obvious, but the film reinforces it with repeated emphasis on shoes. Early in the film, Levee buys himself some new shoes. He passes judgment on Toledo’s shoes. Rainey promises to buy her girlfriend a new set. The climax even hinges on shoes.

The next stage of her career.

Obviously, those shoes tap into the core themes of the story: the importance of dancing for the entertainment of others, and the idea of a displaced class of people in the wake of the Civil War, with no home to call their own. (At one point, the pianist Toledo sings about the African American experience as that of a “leftover.”) However, Wolfe cannot help but signpost the theme at every possible opportunity, in a manner that is occasionally distracting and frustrating.

Similarly, the script builds an elaborate metaphor around the presence of a jammed door in the corner of the room where the band used to produce. Levee is convinced that the door was never there before, and grows increasingly curious about where it might lead. He plays with it at various points in the film, eventually bursting through it at the climax, only to realise that it leads nowhere. It is a decidedly inelegant piece of symbolism, mirroring Levee’s own experiences trying to establish himself as a songwriter.

Taking a back seat.

Still, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom benefits from the advantages of an adaptation like this, essentially locking a bunch of talented actors in a room together and watching them bounce off one another. Viola Davis remains one of the finest American actors working in modern film and television, even if the nature of Ma Rainey as a real person rather than a fictional character seems to place her above or outside a lot of the action involving the rest of the cast. Davis’ work here is not as strong as in Doubt or Fences, but only because the part is not as compelling.

However, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is perhaps most notable as the last major performance from actor Chadwick Boseman, who is cast in the role of Levee. Examined in hindsight, Boseman’s career was astounding, including films with such profound cultural impact as Black Panther, embodying a certain ideal in films like Da 5 Bloods and playing iconic historical figures in films like 42, Get on Up and Marshall. He was an actor of incredible range and with an astonishing body of work.

A roaring (twenties) success?

The temptation with a project like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which entrusts an actor of Boseman’s stature with a script as weighty as this one, is to single it out as the best performance of his career – to mark it as the culmination of a promising young talent who passed away too soon. However, the real testament to Boseman is that such classifications seem facile and irrelevant. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom does not need to feature the best Chadwick Boseman performance to feature an impressive Chadwick Boseman performance.

Still, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom perhaps offers the most traditional showcase of Boseman’s talents as an actor. Levee is a compelling and engaging protagonist, a mess of contradictions and nuance. He is arrogant, but insecure. He is proud, but desperate. He is angry, but cautiously optimistic. There is a lot there for any actor to work with, and balancing those competing extremes requires a performer of rare talent. Boseman does tremendous work. He anchors Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and it’s impossible to look away from the inevitable slow motion tragedy that ensues.

Out of time.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a fairly standard – and perhaps overly literal and beholden – adaptation of a weighty and worthy piece of American theatre. It’s an opportunity to watch talented actors work their craft within a meditation on the African American experience. It is perhaps a little too earnest and heavy-handed, a little too careful in how it handles the material, but it’s ahrd to begrudge it that.

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