MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM Review
The best bands find a sort of harmony in the journey of music making. While one member may shed on the guitar and the other works the drums and another blows away on the trumpet, the differences between the members all centralize on their mission to craft music that speaks to and from them. Like any collaboration, the diversity of the members’ talents and lives truly operate on a tightrope where the collision of different ideas and backgrounds result in either memorable success or toxic failure. In George C. Wolfe’s MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, which is based off a play by August Wilson, a mythical blues figure and her backing band will learn this lesson all too plainly.
Set in the late 1920’s in the city of Chicago, Wilson’s play (which was adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) takes a look at the hectic battle of sorts that slowly but surely escalates between the proto-diva blues singer, Ma Rainey (an attention grabbing Viola Davis), her band (composed of the late Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts), and the two white studio execs (Jeremy Shamos and Jonny Coyne) renting out their shoddy recording space. Largely set within the aforementioned shoddy recording space (with an occasional dip outside to the soundstaged streets of a sweltering Chicago), Wolfe’s adaptation operates as most other “based on a play” movies, with its static staging allowing more room for capable performers to stand around and hurl monologues and diatribes at one another.
Thankfully, the actual performances and content of these showy monologues are all around great. While the themes of being an artist in a racist country sometimes gets muddled by other interesting themes that emerge, such as artistic integrity and personal aspirations for superstardom, it’s never a bad time to see some actors act really well, even if most of the performances always feel like just that, a performance by an actor rather than an embodiment of a character. Mainly focusing on the backing band members for Ms. Rainey, the old timers of the group played by Mr. Turman, Mr. Domingo, and Mr. Potts bring an established camaraderie to their interactions which “pairs” nicely with Boseman’s newcomer, Levee, a fiery and highly aspirational trumpet player whose hot-headed antics and decisions create an increasingly confrontational environment with not only the band but with the imposing Ma Rainey herself. Where Mr. Boseman brings a boiling performance that can at times border on the overzealous, Ms. Davis, an always reliable performer, brings the right blend of mystical aura and inflated ego to her demanding and demeaning siren. As the de-facto head of the studio session, Ms. Davis is at turns off-putting and eye-catching in her performance where she lets her insults and demands fill the room about as well as her crooning. Constantly drenched in sweat and decked out in a flopper outfit of gold, Davis uncovers the frustrations and anger of an underappreciated talent quite well, enhancing Santiago-Hudson’s digs into Ma’s mythical stature.
Despite title billing, Ma Rainey is only a piece to the wider picture of the film. Indeed, while her backing band get more screen time, there is the chance they also act as metaphorical mouth pieces for the real life Rainey’s own struggles with being an African-American woman in show business. As the film demonstrates through constant bickerings and arguments, to be a black entertainer in 1920’s America is to simply be a tool to the White powers that be. Even being a genuine talent in this time is no guarantee for the success one probably deserves as demonstrated in the underlying conflict that Ma has with the two studio execs constantly nudging her to make more “appealing” music aimed at a wider and whiter audience. While MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM stands in awe at Ma’s insistence at staying true to her integrity and voice, the film takes an interesting look at the consequences of that stance as the equally aspirational and headstrong Levee slowly begins to realize that he may not be as strong as he thinks when it comes to taking on the game of White-run show business, all of which playing out in a surprising if overly dramatic final act that holds dire consequences.
In that final third of the film, Wolfe begins to find his footing with the story as the various themes violently collide into one another filling in that terrible picture of persecuted lives. While certainly tragic and impactful (in act alone), it’s a shame that the events that play out feel dramatic for the sake of being dramatic rather than feeling like a natural progression of the bubbling emotions of its characters. The track is there but the train never sets down. One wonders if it would’ve benefitted the filmmaker to take a little more liberty with the source material and offer a smidgen of more background context for the characters’ relationships and journey as simply joining the characters at this one particular place in this particular time feels like only a peek, mitigating any further emotional connection to these people and their lives. There are certainly histories revealed that explain motivations and future decisions, but as with most other movies based on plays these moments are noticeably more showy than tell-y, especially prevalent in Boseman’s character who is simply a walking, talking plot point that attempts to get a last minute jolt of humanity to little effect. While Boseman brings some oomph to the role (as he has with every other role of his), he can’t overcome his character’s purpose as simply a piece to the puzzle.
As a showcase for the acting talents of its performers, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM indeed satisfies that craving — in particular, it’d be hard to really not love Viola Davis’ inhabitation of a legend — but there’s so much other interesting pieces within the story itself that never get their full shine that make the overall result a tad bit lacking. Unlike their subjects, George C. Wolfe and Ruben Santiago-Hudson are just a little too content to stay inside the restrictive confines of that shoddy recording studio and play what they think the audience wants to hear.