On August 29th 2020 the world received the sad news that the actor Chadwick Boseman had died after a secret fight with colon cancer, probably the most shocking Hollywood death since the announcement that Heath Ledger had been killed by an accidental overdose before the release of The Dark Knight, which would have changed his career. Almost as shocking as the death was the fact that the actor had apparently been working pretty consistently with the shadow of death hanging over his head. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, meaning that he played Black Panther in four different movies, played Thurgood Marshall, made that 21 Bridges movie, and also made his contribution to Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods all while fighting for his life without anyone knowing it at the time. Now it’s likely that he didn’t know that whole time that his condition was terminal, but still, this clearly says something about his passion for performing and how important he viewed his work. If you look at the movies he chose to make during that stretch that 21 Bridges movie is the only one that stands out as being something of a frivolous paycheck depending on how much you value an MCU film like Black Panther. There was, however, one final screen performance he gave before his passing and it looked like quite the acting showcase in general: a new adaptation of the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
The film is set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio. A session has been set up for the blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) to record some singles. The record label owner Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Ma’s manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) have arranged to bring in a band of studio musicians to back her. This band is led by a trombone player who’s worked with Rainey before named Cutler (Colman Domingo), an older piano player named Toledo (Glynn Turman), a relaxed bass player who goes by Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and finally a young upstart trumpet player named Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman). Green has come up with a new arrangement for one of Rainey’s signature tunes “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Irvin has brought him in with the intention of recording that version, which hues closer to Louis Armstrong style improvisational jazz than traditional blues, but Cutler isn’t interested in recording that version and is fairly certain that Rainey won’t either when she arrives. This sparks a series of conflicts that escalate over the course of the afternoon.
Ma Rainey’s Black Body can in some ways be viewed as a follow-up to the 2016 film Fences as both are based on plays from August Wilson’s Century Cycle and like that film it’s produced (though not directed by or starring) Denzel Washington and features Viola Davis in a major role, but this time Broadway veteran George C. Wolfe is in the director’s chair. The Century Cycle is set up in such a way that there’s a different play for every decade with Fences being the play about the 50s and this being the play about the 20s, and that place in history is pretty important here both in how it’s looking at a particular moment in the great migration north and unlike all the other plays in the cycle this is set in Chicago rather than Pittsburgh in part because the differences between that city and the south is particularly emblematic of changes in the music industry that are key to the story. The play and film are about a number of key themes beyond the great migration, it’s also about black music and its commodification by a white record industry, about what African Americans need to do to get respect in white institutions, and also about the stresses that African Americans needed to live under and how that plays into black on black crime… it’s heavy stuff, but it doesn’t make these points in didactic ways.
Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, who was an actual historical figure though she has been turned into a fictional character for August Wilson’s purposes. She doesn’t have quite as much screen time as you might think given that she’s the title character but her time in the film does sort of challenge you to consider what you think of her. Rainey is what you’d call “hard to work with.” She shows up late, makes all sorts of diva-ish demands, and is completely closed minded about plans to jazz up her son and you are somewhat tempted to take the side of the white record executive and manager as well as Levee Green in thinking she’s a pain in the ass, but as the film goes on you start to see a lot of this behavior less as a sort of needless stubbornness and more as a sort of fight to stave off exploitation. Levee Green, who would probably be the most important character if you were to choose a lead out of this ensemble, is similarly fascinating as someone who is just trying to break into music but isn’t quite as savvy and as the film goes on you come to realize that he’s somewhat unstable in part because of some very rough experiences he had early on in life and this makes him rather confrontational when dealing with the rest of the band. Chadwick Boseman appears in the film rather gaunt and noticeably less muscular than when he was playing Black Panther, which seems like something of a sad reminder that he was fighting terminal cancer when he filmed this, but ignoring that it fits the character as this is supposed to be a rather younger man than the 43 year old Boseman. Boseman takes on a bit of a southern dialect here and manages to really nail some key speeches and does a great job of conveying some key changes in mood at certain points.
If there’s anything that holds back Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom it’s that at its core it still very much feels like what it is: a stage play adapted to film. Major character swings seem to happen over the course of an afternoon, it’s largely told through dialogue and there’s even a key moment when someone essentially soliloquizes to the camera, which are all moments that scream “stage play” and while much of it retains its power and is done well, there is always going to be something of feeling that a square peg is being inserted into a circular hole. I don’t want to make this into a bigger problem than it is, frankly as someone who doesn’t get out to much live theater it’s nice to have adaptations like this, but with rare exceptions their basic nature make them kind of hard to view as ten out of ten type things even when they’re as well made as this, you just kind of feel like giving more of the credit to the original playwright than you do to the filmmaking, at least when they don’t bring any particularly new twists to the table. Still, when the underlying play is this good, the actors assembled are this good, and the direction works out this well, it’s hard to complain too much.
**** out of Five