Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom features the final performance of Chadwick Boseman before his untimely and devastating death. What would undoubtedly have been a captivating role is all the more prescient because he is exhilarating. Thankfully, the film also soars from its theatrical roots to the screen. Director George C. Wolfe shows us how each character differs in their circumstances and focuses on performances without frequent cutting. As for Viola Davis? Well, she is a gravitational force as the blues legend, Ma Rainey, pulling each character into her orbit as she electrifies with her presence and, most of all, her dignity. It’s about ambition and prestige in the face of challenge and status. Ma is tested at each step of the recording process for her album, while her ambitious trumpeter, Levee, tries to forge ahead in his career.
The film opens with two young black boys running through the dark woods toward a large tent housing a performance by the soon-to-be-legendary Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). She commands the stage in her maroon dress, make-up thick around her eyes and sweat glistening down her cheeks. Each word she sings is purposeful and captivating, and the audience hangs on every inflection. We next see her singing at a large concert venue, and Levee (Chadwick Boseman), the trumpeter in her band, steps to the front of the stage, taking the spotlight with him. But Ma calls out to the lighting technician mid-song and demands the spotlight back on her before roaring in her guttural vocals. She has earned this spotlight, and no one else has a claim to it when she is on stage.
In Chicago, Illinois, the three band members, Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), arrive at the studio for the recording session with Ma. Levee, however, is late, having purchased a brand-new pair of shoes. The band wants to rehearse the songs, but upon arriving, Levee doesn’t think they need to. Cutler, the band’s apparent leader, knows Ma will want to record right away, and though Levee softens, he wants to rehearse his version of Black Bottom. Ma’s manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) agrees to do Levee’s more upbeat rendition, though Cutler, Toledo, and Slow Drag know it’s ultimately Ma’s decision.
When she arrives after a brief car accident with her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) in tow, Ma Rainey has no regard for outside opinions. There are her songs, and it is her decision about how they play the tunes. She insists that her nephew will introduce Black Bottom on the recording, and he will be paid accordingly. However, the kid has a terrible stutter. The other three bandmates only want to do their job, so they wait patiently for Sylvester to get it right. The scene is a centerpiece of the film as Irv, and the studios’ manager Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), try to get the recording started.
The film is an adaptation of the play written by August Wilson, with Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapting it for the screen. It’s a searing study on the ambitions of Levee to level up in the world, having experienced significant pain in his youth and in trying to have his voice heard. His journey juxtaposes Ma’s success, yet she is also consistently challenged by those who think they know better. Levee doesn’t understand that his experience will be no different with fame and fortune, that the challenges remain, and that Ma is evidence of that. Each monologue spoken is a narration of things to come, and Slow Drag’s recollection of a man who sold his soul to the devil is devastatingly paid off in the final Act as we see Levee reaching his breaking point.
The direction here is critical, and George C. Wolfe ensures that the dialogue is compelling without detracting from performances. Levee’s heartbreaking story about being a young boy and watching men attack his mother is palpably realized as he undoes the buttons on his shirt and reveals the scars of a self-inflicted wound he made on his chest to make the men stop. The camera reads every enunciation. In the second Act, when Ma tells Cutler that, ‘they don’t want me, they just want my voice,’ the statement echoes through the rest of the story as her eyes shift downward. Ma and Levee’s scenes are underscored by the changes in production design and tone, where Ma has earned her place in the light and continues to fight for what she deserves. On the other hand, Levee is led by his ego, built from pain and unrelenting obstacles, with his scenes forecasting more shadows.
Boseman devours his scenes with pulsating energy and blistering ferocity. The emotions feel so real that Wolfe smartly trains the camera on Boseman’s face. Even in silent moments, he registers a dozen emotions. It’s a spectacle to watch and a significant legacy to leave behind. If his scenes feel at all suppressed, it’s because Viola Davis commands each moment, slanting forward slightly under the weight of constant contest from her manager, band, and the outside world. She seethes at each request, and Davis ensures Ma is forcefully convincing, as demonstrated when her fists clench after Irv suggests taking Sylvester’s payment from Ma’s check. It’s impossible not to anticipate her presence when she is away from the screen.
As Levee takes a moment for himself in the rehearsal room, he turns himself in circles trying to find a way forward. How can he get ahead when he is continuously facing barriers? He can pound and shake the doors all he wants, but he encounters more walls when he tries to find a straightforward route. The irony is those white musicians will benefit from his talented songwriting; all it took was for him to sell his soul.