Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
“Style ain’t nothing but playing the same piece from beginning to end,” says Toledo (Glynn Turman) to Chadwick Boseman’s character – the trumpet maestro Levee – early on in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Netflix’s adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play explores how African American dreams and aesthetics are co-opted by white businesses, leaving the genuine creatives in the gutter.
The larger-than-life Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) was a real figure; the “Mother of the Blues” was one of the earliest recording artists in America. The film’s title is named after the 1927 song and dance craze. Though decades apart, Wilson and George C Wolfe both depict the track’s production as a showdown between musicians with different competing ambitions, and indeed what blackness is and can be in America.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s screenplay gives the narrative a few more locations. The Great Migration is depicted in a few archival photographs and some flimsy CGI transitions. The movie is at its best when director Wolfe sticks in one space, soaking in the depths and corners of the rehearsal room, from the slowly spinning ceiling fan to the chipped paint peeling off the walls.
Wilson’s work always moves at a generous clip, balancing a broad cast of characters around one magnetic figure. Individuals in the American dramatist’s productions don’t feel like archetypes, however; they are living, breathing people. This is what makes Davis’s performance as Ma so disappointing. The audience is introduced to the protagonist shaking her derriere and sweating as she fans herself with a feather. Her gold teeth, heavy eye shadow and furs show her as an extreme personality, but the fat suit and sneering line deliveries overstep from camp to drag.
Boseman – who completed this feature before his death earlier this year and reportedly kept his cancer a secret from the cast and crew – is the film’s unquestionable highlight. Like The Iceman Cometh’s Hickey, he ducks and weaves around the others on screen – his charged libido and ambition wrapped into one. This role displays a new side of the Black Panther star, who worked in the Disney-Marvel factory line for the best part of a decade. It’s a tragedy that viewers won’t see a dozen more performances like this from the actor in the years to come.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is released digitally on demand on 18th December 2020.
Watch the trailer for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom here: