Adapting a play into a movie isn’t always easy, but you wouldn’t know that from watching director George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Based on August Wilson’s 1984 play (with a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson), the film is poignant, gorgeously shot, and the late Chadwick Boseman gives a phenomenal, heart-wrenching performance that will be remembered for years to come.
Inspired by Ma Rainey (played here by Viola Davis), the real-life Mother of the Blues, the film opens with a vivacious performance by the singer. The onstage tension is easy to pick up between her and Levee (Boseman), the trumpeter who takes on a solo and soaks up every bit of attention. Ma Rainey watches him with an obvious displeasure, the reasons for which are revealed later on. The rest of the band — Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler, (Colman Domingo), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) — know that Ma Rainey doesn’t allow for any changes and that becomes even more apparent when they head to Chicago to record her songs. Most of the film is set inside the studio, with Wolfe making good use out of a limited space.
Levee tussles with members of the band, alternating between a quaking anger and a smug charm as he argues about religion, his passion for music, and the troubles from his trauma. Ma Rainey shows up late to the recording session with her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), though she is unbothered by the delays and insists that her nephew be the one to open the song. Despite the changes Levee and the manager want to make to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the blues singer refuses to bow to their whims and the escalating tensions create clashes for all involved.
Levee and Ma Rainey are in complete opposition of each other for most of the movie. On one hand, Levee represents the upstart young man who isn’t tethered to the old way of doing things. He sees the potential in change and his new sound — an uptempo arrangement of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — is something he thinks is better suited to the tastes of the upcoming Black generation. Levee still has his whole life ahead of him and, while he understands that racism will envelop his life, he believes that he’s got the talent and the ambition to get ahead and make something of himself.
Meanwhile, Ma Rainey’s experiences have tarnished the luster of life. Unlike Levee, she knows that what she has is a good thing and is unwilling to change the arrangement of the song. Ma Rainey knows exactly who her audience is. She lights up like a star when she sings, her voice a rich and vigorous sound. As soon as the music stops, however, she’s attuned to people’s treatment of her. Namely, how her white record manager (Jeremy Shamos) and producer (Jonny Coyne) want only for her to record her music so they can take control of it.
“All they want is my voice,” Ma says, knowing all too well that it will no longer belong to her as soon as she gives them what they want. A surface-level reading of Ma Rainey suggests she’s a demanding woman who waits around for no one and always gets what she wants, but that’s obviously not the case at all. The only leverage she has as a Black woman in the music industry is her talent.
Ma Rainey understands the full extent of what that means and it’s later confirmed when the manager’s behavior changes as soon as he gets what he needs from her. Gone is the doting and the posturing, replaced with an arms-length business proposition that would leave Ma Rainey out of what’s rightfully hers. Viola Davis portrays Ma Rainey with nuance and depth. Davis’ demeanor as Ma Rainey is that of a woman who knows her own worth and values it, wanting respect while standing up and above the system that works to exploit and belittle her.
While Davis is outstanding per usual, the film is a showcase for the late, great Chadwick Boseman, who delivers an absolutely powerful performance as Levee. He seamlessly shifts between anger, devastating heartbreak, and sheer joy at the prospect of playing music. Boseman’s portrayal is utterly controlled, oozing frenetic energy at times while being completely still at others, ebbing and flowing like the notes to a song. The spark never once leaves his eyes and, while he understands that his talent is unparalleled, his potential is stymied by the roadblocks in his path as a Black man. It’s easy to get caught up in emotion while watching Boseman give his all, but he’s a marvel to watch.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom knows how to reel the audience in, offering an intimate exploration of the characters that digs deep into who they are as people, replete with the effect that racism has had on their lives and the appropriation of Black music. The blues performances are lively, the costumes beautiful, and the capture of the characters’ interiority utterly captivating. Strengthened by Davis and Boseman’s performances, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom soars.