by Philip Price
Director: George C. Wolfe
Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman & Colman Domingo
Runtime: 1 hour & 34 minutes
August Wilson's 1982 play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” was one of 10 plays in the writer's "Pittsburgh Cycle" (‘Rainey’ being the only one of the 10 not set in Pittsburgh) that chronicled the twentieth century African-American experience. Like most if not all of Wilson's writing ‘Ma Rainey’ was meant to "raise consciousness through theater". Wilson's writing of the Black experience was something I first encountered my senior year of high school via “Fences.” As a Caucasian who attended a school with a student body that was more or less split right down the middle when it came to racial ratios the African-American experience was something that was present without being particularly regarded as drastically different. Maybe it was simply my naïveté, but in my 15-to-18-year-old mind it was as simple as the fact that slavery, racism and Martin Luther King had happened, what they had to deal with was wrong and terrible, but the actions they took had been worth it and upended those injustices for future generations. We as a society had grown past the ignorance of such things and while that statement in and of itself may now ring of more ignorance than ever, I genuinely believe if one were to ask any of the Black kids, I attended high school with that many would agree they felt the same way. Obviously, this isn't a diatribe against the need to highlight the many injustices that have been inflicted upon African-Americans throughout the twentieth century and into present day, but rather a slice of insight into just how powerful, eye-opening, and - most importantly - how necessary literature documenting the Black experience is. This is all to say that director George C. Wolfe's interpretation of Wilson's material focuses largely on the theme of the burden Black people feel to do something with their time in order to ensure prosperity for future generations. The idea many of these individuals aren't allowed to lead a life where such issues don't impact their day to day drives certain characters present in ‘Ma Rainey’ to purpose while pushing others to the edge. Wilson's exploration of contradiction in this American life through faith versus vindication or expectation versus the truth of the matter transforms the heated racial tension of 1920's Chicago into a pertinent commentary on how a system designed on the promise of possibility grants equal opportunities for repression; all of which is conveyed through the mood of the blues.
“Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” has naturally come to bear some unexpected weight since production wrapped given this will now go down as Chadwick Boseman’s final on-screen performance. As Levee, the unbelievably charismatic and quietly versatile actor is afforded plenty of opportunity to wax poetic about race, religion, and all things in between, but what’s maybe most precious about the fact this will be recorded in the history books the way it will be is that Levee, while quite temperamental, represents a lot of what Boseman stood and fought for in his personal life.
While Ma Rainey is a real, historical figure the events of Wilson's story aren't based on any kind of fact or true story, but more the events are inspired by the "The Mother of the Blues." It is 1927 in the Windy City and Ma Rainey has made a special trip north to record a few records for her white management. It would seem Viola Davis' Ma would be more than happy to skip this part of the business and simply continue touring as it's the people who attend her shows that appreciate what she does whereas her management only cares about and tends to her needs because of the money she makes for them. While waiting on Ma to arrive her band, consisting of conductor Cutler (Colman Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Boseman's younger, hot-headed trumpeter, hang out in the rehearsal space. It is in this space that much of the storytelling, joking, philosophizing, and arguing takes place. Much of the conversations are all in good fun at first, but it's clear tensions begin to rise between Levee and especially Toledo, but also Cutler as Levee is rather obnoxious and feels the need to gain the higher ground in every little interaction to the point it’s a wonder, he ever learned anything in the first place. By the time Ma eventually arrives with her entourage of nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) in tow, recording has fallen behind schedule with Ma making more requests and demands the moment she steps in the room only furthering the irritation of producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and completely exasperating her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos). Ma's demands include a Coca-Cola before she sings a note and that the stuttering Sylvester speak the title song's introduction. These requests combined with her already mounting disdain for Levee only fester further as things are delayed even more when Ma and the band have to wait on various technical issues to be resolved. Of course, it is in this downtime that Wilson found opportunity to further his exploration and analysis and thus it is these moments of conversation that direct the emotions and furthermore, the actions of Levee to a set of circumstances that could destroy any possibility of the future he envisioned for himself.
It would be easy to essentially go through Levee’s two primary monologues within ‘Ma Rainey’ and quote them line for line in order to relay the heart of Boseman’s character as they both eloquently and sometimes (intentionally) not so eloquently summarize Levee's worldly assertions into digestible anecdotes. To do that would be to give away the edge Boseman wears in his performance though, as well as the writing of Wilson (with an adaptation credit going to Ruben Santiago-Hudson) which so effortlessly seems to echo the poetry of the everyday language of Black America. Rather, in an effort to best outline what defines Levee as a character and as a volatile foil that the viewer still feels a great deal of sympathy for would mean to get to the heart of what Levee is reaching for and like much Troy Maxson in “Fences,” it is this need to feel he matters. Levee wants to hold influence in an area that means something to him - that matters to him - and he feels cheated out of such significance thus far by playing music with no aspiration for an artist he could easily surpass in both quality and popularity given the opportunity. At the risk of doing exactly what I said I wouldn't, it's apparent the character of Levee - while insightful and clearly intelligent - could stand to take a step back and consider his positions from various perspectives rather than filtering the whole of his life experience through a single, albeit traumatic moment that happened to him when he was a child. Rather than considering what he could gain from the more seasoned musicians around him, Levee is poisoning that which he could draw large amounts of inspiration and knowledge from. Levee sees himself as both a victim of circumstance who can't forgive the world for as much as well as one that could break the chain.
It is this mentality that leads to Levee's second big speech in which he curses the heavens in order to prove to Cutler his God isn't real and it's in this moment the realization is made that Levee has processed every relationship in his life through the instance with his mother on which his first monologue centered. Levee is a man abandoned. He's seeking the gratification of being both respected and acknowledged for his talent and skill, but as someone of color and the additional prejudices inherent to him because of this the guiding light of Ma Rainey is all he has to hold onto yet his pride won't even allow that promise to prosper. It goes without saying Boseman’s expression of hate and anger toward a God he doesn't feel cares about him carries a little more weight these days. One can perceive the passion in his eyes, but the desperation present is almost too much to bear; some of the inflections and the way his eyes move as he speaks making it a watershed moment in an all too brief, but abundantly impressive career.
Of course, this is a two-hander of a film and Davis is nothing short of fantastic here, honestly. As the titular character, Davis is inspired as the strong female lead who is nothing short of an exception for her time and condition. Ma Rainey is the only character in Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" to be based on a real person as well as being the only LGBTQ character as Ma was an out lesbian, who, in her song “Prove It on Me,” proclaims: "Went out last night with a crowd of my friends, must have been women 'cause I don’t like men." Needless to say, Ma was a trailblazer and yet, in the great tradition of the aforementioned paradoxes of life, she was also already being left behind by the time Wilson's story takes place. This is made evident through the direction Levee is keen to take the band in with Ma, a very strong, principled woman who declines to adapt to the times and instead continue to do what she knows is best for her sound and voice. Davis, who's had plenty of experience with Wilson's language, is the natural choice to embody such a character and with all her consistently profuse perspiration and smeared make-up paired with the extravagant period costumes Davis does in fact completely personify this presence that is as equally grand as she is visceral and raw.
Like any stage production adapted to film though, ‘Ma Rainey’ has the issue of feeling more contained than it necessarily should and this is especially true of the performance pieces as we crave both more footage of Ma Rainey performing live as well as more of the simmering tension between how Ma wants to perform a song and how Levee insists on playing it. Wolfe doesn't seem to feel the need to change or adapt the lens too much in his feature version though, which isn't necessarily a bad thing as this is clearly intent on being faithful to and honoring the source material, but it’s the fact Wolfe's directing feels timider than his fiery characters do that it doesn't feel as if his direction serves the material as well as it potentially could. The dialogue can certainly stand on its own and with actors like Davis and Boseman delivering such wording it's hard to go wrong, but just because something is obviously of a high quality doesn't also automatically render it infinitely effective. While the inherently powerful material is often enough to overcome the otherwise standard execution it's hard not to imagine what might have been had Wolfe felt more in tune with Wilson's tone. That said, the final sequence of the film is as telling, provocative, and dumbfounding a moment as any in the movie as it does what the rest of Wolfe's film needed in that it exemplifies the discrimination these characters deal with while expressly conveying the anger, we should all feel along with them. Of course, I realize the irony of someone who has no real idea of the Black experience critiquing a film solely based around that subject and so trust that this is all stated with the largest amount of humility. To whatever extent my opinion does matter on the film, the baseline is that “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” makes no qualms about what it is and exerts that meaning in every piece of dialogue if not in every facet of the production.