Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½

Powerful performances from the great Viola Davis and late Chadwick Boseman illuminates playwright August Wilson’s words to the screen in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Director George C. Wolfe injects cinematic vitality to this majorly theatrical work as much as he could, and although not entirely successful, Ma Rainey proves to be a stimulating piece of work that dives into the Black experience and to the visionary world of Mr. Wilson. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom centers on the world of Black musicians in the 1920s as they navigate the mostly-White populace of entertainment business. It’s a meditative piece on Black art, commerce, and the exploitation within Black artists.

August Wilson’s plays are a deep dive into the Black experience (which can be an acquired taste), and with his characterizations on Ma Rainey, he uncovers the scars of trauma, religion, and survival. It’s hard not to be swept by Wilson’s lyrical, operatic arias of monologues as they reveal a much deeper, more direct to the soul of his Black subjects. This highly theatrical, distinct affect to Wilson’s work makes a difficult case to make the material cinematic. Wolfe, along with screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, gave exemplary work to “open up” Wilson’s play to the screen and even if it feels stiff at times, the film overcomes these little weak technical spots as it forces the viewer to concentrate on the actors’ work instead.

The late Chadwick Boseman fills up the space with such hypnotic dynamism that gives way to Levee’s trauma, and simmering rage. He’s undeniably gifted as an actor, but his work uttering the godly lines of Wilson is just pure miracle, it's his best performance in his short-lived but unforgettable career. Sorrowful without being too over-the-top, Boseman fills his work with such hefty emotional realism that stings. I was a little conflicted by the sudden outburst of trivial violence, but past that, Boseman triumphs in transcending Levee’s pain and suffering on the screen.

Viola Davis, who won the Oscar for another Wilson role in Fences, makes an electrifying presence as Ma Rainey. Ms. Davis doesn’t show any predictable tears or snot that we usually associate with her. It's all that mighty sweat. This is Davis in her baddest, ferocious, and imperious, a side that we often see in her past portrayals. Her imposing, larger-than-life characterization works well for this larger-than-life diva, but what I mostly recognize is when Ma Rainey goes small. The small details that Ms. Davis gives are just a force to watch. Observe her intimate scenes with Dussie Mae, as well as her monologues—Ms. Davis puts a nuanced incarnation of a woman ahead of her time, a woman knowing her worth and reclaiming her power.

Then what about the rest of the ensemble? Glynn Turman is shockingly powerful in his “Leftovers” monologues, while Colman Domingo is splendid in his sturdy supporting turn. Taylour Paige also makes an impression as Ma Rainey’s plaything, but honestly, this is one of the best ensemble acting I’ve seen this year. Overall, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn't fly high as a film but still delivers with its gut-wrenching performances to back it up.

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