In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
The source material for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom–the play of the same name by August Wilson–is wholly unassailable, delivering a fiery story about the “Mother of the Blues” and her band as they work to record the titular song in a white-run studio. Adapted here by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and stacked to the gills with energetic, human performances, this is the kind of movie that goes down super smooth, while igniting an emotional fire within the viewer. With an explosive performance from Chadwick Boseman at its center, placed at odds with a scene chewing Viola Davis, and surrounded by one of the best supporting casts of the year, this is one you really do not want to miss.
In adapting a play to the screen, it’s often tough to make the transition from the blocking of the stage to that of cinema. Director George C. Wolfe injects the proceedings with enough flair, and populates each image with enough period detail that the occasional dips into more noticeably bombastic direction are easy to forgive. The film easily validates its own existence, and has me wanting to read the play (and see it if it’s ever produced near me). The material is so good that it would be hard to mess this one up, but I’m pleased to say that this is one of those “great material told well” situations that you just love to see.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is that Ma Rainey herself is not really the main character. That honor would go to Levee (Boseman), a trumpet player with a hell of an ego, but one that he feels is earned by his undeniable skill, and by his truly awful experience growing up in a world rigged against people of color. Much of the film occurs in the basement rehearsal room of the studio while they wait for the arrival of Ma, who has an ego of her own, and who will not be made to stress by anyone who can stand to gain something from her considerable talent. Really, that’s what this movie is about: Ma has the talent, and as she correctly sees it, the white men tasked with recording her voice see her not as a person, but a way to make a buck. And if they want to make that buck, they’re going to have to do it on her terms. It’s one thing to be a diva when you’re on top of the world, but when you’re a person like Ma Rainey, who only holds power in a small number of situations, being a diva is a survival mechanism, and for her, a point of pride.
Not only must the studio kowtow to her (completely reasonable) demands, but if the band wants to play with her, they’re going to have to do it her way as well. Levee, who understands music just as well as Ma, but is a little behind on the business end of things (and is very wary of the potential exploitation he may suffer working in an industry dominated by whites with money), frequently butts heads with the singer. Really, the two are quite similar, even down to their taste in lovers, but his relative lack of experience in the business leaves him at a disadvantage that Ma simply would not tolerate in her own experience. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition of two thoroughly realized characters that helps crack open the thematic concerns of the movie.
These concerns, namely the notion that a rigged system robs passionate, talented people of their creative agency based on the color of their skin, while ignoring the fact that a lot of the passion on display is a direct result of the trauma they’ve suffered at the hands of the same system, are not elucidated through proselytizing or didactic speeches. Nope, they are shown through the characters and their interactions with one another. The band, which consists of black men of differing ages, and therefore differing perspectives, hash out their troubles with one another during rehearsals and the breaks between recording sessions. Their banter is often playful, often intense, but feels very true to life, and also has that prestige sizzle that so many less earnest historical pictures fail to employ properly.
Davis wears the role of Ma Rainey exactly as well as you’d expect. It’s a powerfully physical performance, which requires Davis to move with an incredible swagger, don some gaudy gold chompers, and to be damp with sweat for the entire film. None of this is gimmicky, however. Ma, with less screen time than the band itself, does not feel like an actor in a costume (sorry Rami Malek), but like a real person. We don’t need any exposition to know who she is and why she acts like she does, and Davis makes her sing (although she’s only partially singing the songs on the soundtrack — its a mix of her and soul singer Maxayn Lewis). It’s such a perfect match of material and talent that even the somewhat visible seams surrounding her vocal performance are paved over by the sheer power of it.
Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts play the members of the band, and each one of them steals the show at one point of another. I know that a narrative has to have conflict, but in an alternate universe there’s a movie of just these guys sitting around and chatting about their lives, and it’s an absolute joy. There came a point in the story when it occurred to me that serious conflict was about to enter the world of these fellas, and it broke my heart. I cared about them all so much. It’s telling that a movie can build such a quick bond between the characters and the audience, and it speaks to a wealth of serious talent on all levels of production.
As you can tell, I loved this movie. A few wonky cutaways and a few seams in the realism are quite minor, and they mostly service the willful suspension of disbelief that plays delightfully require and movies work to avoid, so it’s hard to complain. Come for the powerhouse performances, stay for a supremely entertaining movie with a beautiful message told in a way that will provoke thought and growth within its audience. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a total win, and it has me falling down a pretty deep Spotify hole.
I can’t end this review without saying something about Chadwick Boseman, and while there are no words to accurately describe the talent which was lost, I will say that his final performance is truly one for the ages. Between this and Da Five Bloods, I think there’s a very real chance for a well-deserved posthumous Oscar.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now available on Netflix.