Adapted from the acclaimed 1982 play by August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a fiercely clever exploration of race and sexuality that pulls no punches. That said, the film is rather stagey, with its contained setting and some theatrical-style acting, both of which feel contrived on the screen. But the material is bracingly important, so the words and performances offer far more subtle observations than the somewhat pushy filmmaking.
It’s set in 1927 Chicago, as a group of African-American musicians gathers in a recording studio for a session with the notorious Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Before she arrives, trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) chats with fellow session players Cutler, Toledo and Slow Drag (Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts), circling around issues relating to their lives. Expressing humour, passion and emotion, they reveal stories from their pasts, as well as opinions about the oppressive injustice they feel as Black men in White-dominated society.
Of course, Ma arrives late, a consummate diva insisting that her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) introduces her on the record. Her exasperated producers (Jeremy Shamos and Jonny Coyne) are furious that all of this is holding up the recording. And as Levee begins balking at the music itself, everyone starts to feel the tension.
Where the story goes is powerful, as Wilson adeptly captures the realities of life in this place and time, as well as bigger themes that resonate down through the decades, making the issues in the story feel almost eerily timely. But while the dialog is knowing and cleverly oblique, the film is directed by George Wolf deliberately to punch each key theme. This preachy undermines the material’s power, even if it still carries a strong kick.
Davis gives the openly bisexual Ma (a real musician from the period) a larger-than-life presence, making full use of the elaborate costumes and makeup to chomp on the scenery. But the story’s real focus is on the late Boseman’s Levee, and in his final role he commands the screen with a more nuanced performance as a young man who knows he’s talented but can’t remain silent about injustice. Levee picks fights with everyone, and his internal turmoil brings the entire film to life. It’s a terrific performance that deserves each award it’s winning. And the supporting cast is also superb, particularly ace veterans Domingo and Turman.
There are several angles in this story that offer insight, including the difference in generational attitudes between the older and younger men. These talented musicians love to perform, but know they are being sidelined by an industry that wants to use their fabulous skills without giving them the credit. It’s frustrating that the filmmakers so loudly shout each point, instead of allowing Wilson’s ideas to linger and provoke thought. Even so, this is a vital, urgent, remarkably timely drama.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix