The most recent film adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s work was 2016’s Fences. Helmed by and starring Denzel Washington, the adaptation was a major critical success and awarded Viola Davis with her long-overdue Oscar. Four years later, Viola Davis and Washington (serving as a Producer here) reunite for another dynamic Wilson adaptation.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, whose stage productions have starred the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Anthony Mackie and Charles S. Dutton, captures a critical point in Black culture. Set over an afternoon in a recording studio in 1927’s Chicago, legendary “Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), in the midst of a successful tour, clashes fiercely with her Trumpet player, the ambitious Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman). The singer, bringing along her stuttering nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and secret lover/backup dancer, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), also struggles with her relationship with her management, two white men (Jeremy Shanos and Jonny Coyne) seeking control over her career.
Filmmaker George C. Wolfe manages to bring August Wilson’s divine work to the screen in occasional vivid fashion, if still unable to shake its stagy roots. Running at a brisk 94 minutes, Wolfe keeps sharp tabs on the pressure-cooker tension that gradually builds throughout the film. There’s an energy to the way Wolfe places the camera that keeps the film from feeling stagnant. Wolfe also gets finely tuned performances from his cast that are big and explosive, but still have enough nuance for the intimacy found on film versus the stage. However, the director strains when it comes to fully transcending the barrier between stage play and cinema. The cinematography and production design do more than a serviceable job at replicating the vibrancy of the roaring 20’s. The screenplay, adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, captures the Black experience of the 1920’s with fulfilling amounts of heart and sorrow, but long stretches of the film do feel inherently limited in scope. A pivotal moment in the final act comes off slightly contrived onscreen, whereas it surely works better on stage. Thankfully, the films devastating final coda is executed to precision.
So much of the power in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes from its extraordinary cast. Viola Davis embodies Ma Rainey with such soul and a deep ferocity. It’s a testament to an actor like Davis who can be so recognizable, yet fade completely into her character. This is a showy role, but one that is endlessly layered. The Supporting cast, made up of Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige and Jeremy Shamos, round out the film with lived-in, authentic performances.
Much of the focus, however, is on the late Chadwick Boseman in his final screen performance. In the cruelest twist of reality, Boseman’s final role happens to be the performance of a lifetime. With his tragic passing unavoidably holding a melancholic poignancy over the film, Boseman’s potent turn as Levee, the ambitious and brash trumpet player in Ma’s band, will unquestionably go down, next to his turn as King T’Challa in Black Panther, as his defining performance.
More than any other film in his career, Boseman gets to showcase the incredible range within his ability as an actor. As the scarred and scheming musician, the late actor literally gives his all during some haunting monologues that contain a raw vulnerability not often found in leading men. His ability to command every single frame he’s in is just an extraordinary sight. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful final role to remember him by.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a powerful piece of work. It may not materialize into the most cinematic of experiences, but director George C. Wolfe does a solid enough job lending the incomparable work of August Wilson to the screen. It’s an unforgettable swan song for the unforgettable talent that was Chadwick Boseman.