Adapted from the stage production by playwright August Wilson and produced by actor Denzel Washington, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is less about the legendary ‘Mother of the Blues’ Ma Rainey herself and more about the appropriation of black culture and music, explored over one afternoon at a recording session for her and the band. This film features wonderful renditions of Rainey’s songs, such as Jelly Bean Blues and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, sung by Maxayn Lewis and performed by Viola Davis. Band members include the late Chadwick Boseman, posthumously awarded for his acting feat as vibrant cornet player Levee, whose clashes with both the band and Rainey lead to an unforgettable finale that delivers a strong message.
The owners of the recording studio, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) quickly despair and anger at Ma Rainey’s lateness to the session and multiple ongoing demands. Levee eagerly tries to get his written songs to Sturdyvant who promised to look at them. He dreams of having his own band, all the while flirting with Rainey’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and struggling to restrain his cornet playing to the exact way Rainey wants it, much to her annoyance.
To watch this film for its plot and story will leave you unsatisfied and wishing for more. Instead, focus on the characters and their interactions with one another. The film has kept its stage routes, restricting its time-frame and keeping its monologues, allowing the attention to be bought to its important characterisations. The acting, specifically by Davis, Boseman, and Colman Domingo (Cutler, band member and friend of Ma’s), is the real winner here. Davis is such a dominating and extraordinary presence, totally embodying the soul of Rainey and the blues, elevated by the wonderful costume and makeup department that helped create an accurate and immersive atmosphere for Davis and the others to flourish in.
Boseman takes you for an emotional ride, drawing us alongside the character through all his ups and downs. His intense monologues engage the audience even further through the use of long single takes, and having the narrative take place over a single afternoon keeps you in line with the character’s changing mindsets as you experience a time – and state – similar to theirs. Domingo’s character Cutler interacts well with Boseman, playing off of each other and acting as a good bridge between the band and Rainey, who otherwise has troubles with them solely due to Levee’s antics and ambitions.
This character study conveys a significant issue of that time period (and one that is still relevant to this day). Rainey speaks out, domineering whatever room she is in, because she absolutely refuses to have her voice taken, used, and sold, without second thought to her as the person behind the voice. Essentially, the art is taken from the artist; the art is seen as profitable by the white employer, and so separated from the black artist. Davis fully understands Rainey’s strong presence and makes herself stand the same, and this is another role in her continuation of acting achievements.
Levee also struggles with having his art separated from him, with his own arc subtly indicating why he wants to be heard outside of his single, confined role as a cornet player in a band. This makes the ending more powerful as the film finishes on a shot that makes the audience wish for certain characters’ justice for their white-perpetrated misfortune.
The undercurrent of the film is not overshadowed by the beautiful designs and powerful performances, but it is unfortunately overshadowed by the lack of ‘plot’. Whilst this film is a character study, and a good one at that, the lacking narrative overall sometimes takes you out of the film as the surface level isn’t immediately engaging; you have to dig for the engaging elements, found in the social themes and brilliant performances. This may work for a theatre play, as the focus is on the performers and not the visual transportation into another world, but this doesn’t necessarily translate well onto the screen. This is a shame as there truly is something great in this film, but the audience may not connect as easily with it as they could.
Despite the faults, the positives are plentiful. Davis’ talent hasn’t faltered yet, and I would’ve loved to see her Ma Rainey even more – especially as she plays the titular character, yet Levee seemed to steal the screen-time. Boseman delivered one of his best performances; it is unfortunate that he couldn’t experience the acclamation in person, but this performance won’t be forgotten. This film would’ve been an all-rounder if the plot had been stronger, as its lack of story diminishes its powerful characters.