Ma Rainey is a legend in the 1920s Black Soul community. The respect and excitement she inspires in the people around her have finally been noticed by the racist white establishment who have invited her and her band to record her voice for mass consumption. But her trumpet player Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) has his own ambitions. Soon old resentments and bitter rivalry threaten to compromise the recording and their careers.
The music of the film is portrayed as a vibrant, confrontational and deeply personal act that is violated by the white man’s recording needle. The music is explored as an expression of the fears and anger that affect all of the central characters. Each has disturbing experience of racial oppression and systemic exclusion. The management clearly view Ma Rainey as a commodity and an inconvenience, but Rainey is very savvy of her situation. Davis plays her with conviction, manifesting a world weariness that is authentic and compelling. Rainey is a difficult woman to work with but one who knows the world she lives in and the history of her music. Soul comes from a real place and serves a purpose the managers of the recording business could never understand.
Conversely Levee is obsessed with getting ahead at any cost. He hates the systems that deprive him of his dignity but is convinced he has figured out how to work with them. Boseman plays the man expertly, immediately giving the impression of the excitable young talent who’s brash and cocksure but clearly in need of hubris. However there’s much more to him than initially meets the eye and Boseman presents a fragile exterior hiding a deep pain. His wide smile and frenzied eyes tell his story even better than his lengthy monologue.
Screen writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson and director George C Wolfe have adapted August Wilson’s play for the screen and as with most cinematic adaptations of plays (particularly this year’s One Night in Miami) there’s a very obvious point where we transition from the cinematic overture into the single set where most of the action takes place. Noticing this moment is always a little distracting. No matter how vividly rendered the world outside is, once we transition back indoors it can’t help but feel a little small. The weapons of the film are the weapons of the theatre. Monologue and performance drive the story, not cinematography and editing which here are simply instructed to be in the right place at the right time to capture the actor. This is more a filmed play than a cinematic adaptation.
However the film inherits some fine assets from it’s source material. The language feels real and natural. There’s a compelling tension that rises throughout until the explosive finale arrives. The characters have a deep inner life that is realised beautifully by the supporting cast. Their interactions are easy, fraught and full of meaning. Thematically the film is thoughtful and resonant. The themes of appropriation of black culture and the plunder of black talent is as urgent as it’s ever been.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the last film to feature Chadwick Boseman and a finer demonstration of his abilities you could not hope for. It’s a wonderful showcase for one of the most talented, sensitive and bold performers of his time. Overall, this is a very entertaining film that perhaps worked better as a play but nevertheless is dramatic and arresting.