Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes out singing the blues and never stops, even when the music isn’t playing.
The second Oscar-worthy adaptation of an August Wilson work in four years bursts beyond the play’s theatrical constraints from its first moments. And unlike the play, it doesn’t make you wait for the grand entrances of its star players.
The musical number at the outset establishes award-winning actress Viola Davis in the role of the real-life Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as Levee, the brash trumpet player with big dreams.
We meet them in a tent in circa-1927 Georgia, as Levee tries to upstage the star and flirts with her girlfriend.
Needless to say, Ma is not amused.
Before the action shifts from Georgia to Illinois, photos and clippings give evidence of the Black migration to northern cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh, a frequent Wilson theme.
When the scene moves north to a Chicago recording studio, and the owner asks, “Where is she?,” and “Where is the trumpet player?,” we already know which one is keeping everyone waiting and we know to buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Without a word, Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay has established the post-industrial diaspora of the era and the conflict between Ma and Levee, and perhaps most tellingly, it gives the audience what many have come to see: Viola Davis decked out as the Mother of the Blues, and Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman in his final role, before his death in August, at age 42.
Davis, who won the 2017 best supporting actress Oscar for her role in Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Fences, leads a powerhouse team in conveying the 1920s installment of Wilson’s American Century Cycle, with all but Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood.
That didn’t stop the movie’s producers, among them Washington and Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, from bringing the production to the writer’s hometown.
Ma Rainey is the work that established the Pittsburgh playwright as a theatrical force on Broadway in 1984, with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences to follow in 1987.
The title is taken from Ma Rainey’s signature song, music that spoke volumes to Wilson. The playwright, who died at age 60 in 2005, not only wrote in the mournful, rhythmic language of the blues, but he declared, “I am the blues.”
As he lets Ma tell it, “White folk don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that it’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing because that’s understanding life. This’d be an empty world without the blues.”
Ma says this in conversation with bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo) as she waits for the cold Coke she was promised on a hot summer day. When none is waiting for her, she refuses to continue until the bottles are in hand.
The songs in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom come stingily after the opening number, although music director Branford Marsalis did a deep dive into what Levee derisively calls the “jugband” sound—husky-voiced Ma Rainey was not swayed to change her style as the Jazz Age roared around her.
Davis sings “Those Dogs Of Mine”—“dogs” in this case being “feet,” as in “Oh how my corns did burn” and, unlike Levee, “I can’t wear me no sharp-toed shoes.” Other songs are vocalized by soul singer Maxayn Lewis, a former Ikette with Ike & Tina Turner.
Vocals aside, Davis imbues Ma with furious pride and glimpses of vulnerability—the seductive Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) is an obvious weak spot. The actress, armored in heavy padding and eyes glaring beyond a sea of coal-black down to her cheeks, demands not just respect but subservience from any who would challenge Ma’s will.
She’s the moneymaker at this party, and she makes sure no one forgets it.
That includes the white men who are beholding to her at this session: her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who spends most of his time cajoling or giving in to Ma, and Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the owner and engineer of the studio. Mel barely conceals his distaste for Ma and her band members, who spend most of the movie sequestered in a basement rehearsal area.
In their claustrophobic quarters, in the heat of day and with delays mounting, frustrations and resentments begin to roil.
Elder statesman and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) is quick to impart wisdom and criticism, while bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) moves to his own rhythms and trombonist and Cutler struggles to keep the players in harmony. At least until the end of the session.
Boseman, who was born in Anderson, South Carolina, has the flashiest role as Levee, and is elevated by matching wits with a band of distinguished scene partners.
You’ll likely recognize plenty of other cast members, too. Veteran actor Turman, for example, plays a key role in the current season of FX’s Fargo, and Domingo can be seen opposite Zendaya in HBO’s Euphoria. Potts, soon to be seen in The Prom on Netflix, was among the stars of the Tony-winning revival of Wilson’s Jitney.
The bandmates serve as catalysts for Boseman’s character, in a film dedicated to the late actor’s “artistry and heart.” Both are on display in Levee, who enters with spiffy new wingtips and gloating about his own arrangements and songs.
His bandmates aren’t having any of it.
Turman’s Toledo is particularly put off by Levee’s bravado and lack of concern for the task at hand. In an exchange about “just having a good time,” Toledo lectures that more Black people “got killed having a good time than God’s got ways to count.”
When Levee is teased for showing deference to the white studio owner, he finally breaks down and explains why what they see isn’t necessarily the whole story.
In a harrowing monologue about the violence and racism that has shaped the man Levee has become, the camera captures Boseman’s every expression of pain and outrage, and we witness what the buzz for a posthumous Oscar is all about.
In another telling scene, when Mel takes hold of Levee’s music, Boseman’s expression of hope mixed with doubt needs no words to create a palpable foreboding.
Tension permeates the screenplay by Santiago-Hudson, a Tony-winner for Wilson’s Seven Guitars and a Drama Desk-winner for The Piano Lesson off-Broadway.
The adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that hits Netflix on December 18—after a stint in theaters—clocks in at a lean hour and 34 minutes. It’s an achievement that honors the original and delivers a tightly told tale with emotional punch and visual impact.
A version of this story was originally published by the Pittsburgh Current.
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