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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom [Video Review]

It’s Rainey’s Men: Wolfe Wows with Ardent Adaptation of Eloquent Wilson Play

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Movie ReviewAugust Wilson, arguably the most notable and influential Black playwright lionized for his series of ten plays known as both The Century Cycle and The Pittsburgh Cycle, is finally being recuperated for the cinema. Perhaps because the mounting of his material required a certain mixture of authenticity and passion beyond the pale of the cultural gatekeepers until recent years. Or perhaps because, beyond the organic manifestations of theater, his body of work is also so preeminent and important for anyone but the most confident of equally celebrated auteurs to adapt. Yet this is exactly what Denzel Washington did in his 2016 rendering of Fences, the play which won Wilson his first of two Pulitzer Prizes.

Snagging a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Viola Davis, Washington’s success helped pave the way and reignite the interest for more explorations of Wilson, which has resulted in George C. Wolfe’s tackling of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a work which, as true to Wilson, focuses on real life drudgeries, only this time its center piece is a 1920s icon anointed as the Mother of Blues.

In 1927 Georgia, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) was of the first generation of blues singers to record thanks to her success as a touring sensation throughout the 1920s and mid-1930s, inspiring proteges like Bessie Smith and countless musical artists for generations to come. This pointed exploration focuses on one particular day when her agent Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) lures her to Chicago to record her hit titular song. Her band arrives first, including Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). The latest addition to their troupe, the younger and ambitious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) has used his recent earnings to buy himself a fancy pair of yellow shoes. Upon joining his bandmates, it’s clear he has ideas about more exciting, contemporary music audiences want to hear, but Cutler assures him, Ma Rainey has the final say about anything they play, and she surely isn’t interested in someone else telling her how to sing, specifically his unsolicited revamp of her own song.

As is expected, Ma Rainey arrives with a flurry of activity, facing down a white cop in a traffic scuffle, she schmoozes on her tagalong girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who has eyes for Levee. Between technical difficulties and warring egos, Ma has to face down her younger competition as well as the clingy manipulations of her white handlers, whose empty promises have led Levee down a road of perdition. Insisting her young nephew (Dusan Brown), despite a significant speech impediment, record the voice over opening to their first track, a strenuous afternoon stretches on with interminable duress for those fixed in her orbit.

Joan Crawford once said, “If I think I deserved an Oscar for Mildred Pierce, I deserve two for (The Story of) Esther Costello.” Although this wouldn’t be the kind of hubris we’d expect from Viola Davis, the sheer transfixing intensity of her Ma Rainey is a galvanizing, transformative performance—and if you think she deserved an Oscar for Fences, then she surely deserves the same for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Ms. Davis is often prone to excel in roles of serious, weighty intensity, an energy which is channeled into pure, powerful ferociousness as Rainey, who was recently depicted by Mo’Nique in Dee Rees’ Bessie (2015), who played her also as a power to be reckoned with but hardly to the extensive dimensions Davis brings to her. But Wolfe doesn’t allow for Davis to swallow the play’s energies whole, and instead the production feels like two parallel perspectives, blending the concerns of Ma Rainey and the in-house bickering of her band. Amongst them are a formidable quartet, the most omnipotent of them being Chadwick Boseman in his final onscreen performance prior to his death earlier this year as the tragic figure Levee, appropriately named for a structure used to control an element.

It’s true, Wilson’s material, which is expertly opened up appropriately with just the right breaks from Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Lackawanna Blues, 2005), lends itself to showcase Levee, granted two exceptional monologues which Boseman nails with graceful and increasing intensity, but it would be all for naught without the volleying from Colman Domingo’s Cutler, Ma Rainey’s right hand, it seems (and the only character with whom she truly lets her guard down).

Cutler is older, wiser and more petty than Levee, but he isn’t without values and convictions which Domingo lets fly in the film’s most poignant moment concerning religion, Jesus Christ, and a trauma such beliefs could never possibly heal—it’s as progressive and even angrier than the equally ahead of her time Lorraine Hansberry in her formation of Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun. Like a memorable freak out in Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer (2011), this allows for an intense dramatic pivot and another reminder of how Domingo excels as the glue who ties this shambolic recoding union of creativity and commerce together. And not unlike his supporting performance in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Domingo’s fluctuating subtleties are worthy of the same awards conversation contention afforded the showier performances of Davis and Boseman.

Glynn Turman, one of the greats who has made memorable films and television across a career spanning five decades (from early turns in Cooley High and the Blaxploitation classic J.D.’s Revenge and then Cosby’s “A Different World”), along with Michael Potts, have less to do as Toledo and Slow Drag, but the four men altogether allow for an easy, almost sardonic humor which makes their toils and reality seem immediately believable.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom arrives both as a reminder of a great loss with Boseman’s passing and of the formidable prowess of Viola Davis. Simultaneously, it’s the sterling result of what a film should feel like, with all its components, both in front of and behind the camera, firing on all cylinders. From Ann Roth’s picture-perfect costume design, Davis’ garish but arresting make-up (including but not limited to the Jean Harlow pencil brows and gold capped teeth), the gentle but informative score from Branford Marsalis and another example of the underrated work from cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (Dreamgirls, 2006), it’s a film which induces a good buzz despite the sweaty discomfort of its realities, like a neat Cognac on a sweltering afternoon.

★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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