Two searing performances—by Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman—make Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom more than just a faithful adaptation of a great theater piece. Davis captures the matter-of-fact fury of blues singer Ma Rainey, who is willing to perform two numbers for her white agent/producer—but not before expressing her anger at feeling exploited. All of this comes hurtling at us while her band members try to contend with a trumpeter named Levee, who has his own ideas about how to perform one of Ma’s signature pieces. He also has big dreams about his budding career, unaware of just how easy it is for a white record producer to make him feel like two cents.
It’s not pleasant spending an hour and a half in the company of such aggressively antisocial characters, but comfort is not what playwright August Wilson had in mind. When he died in 2005, he left behind ten plays, collectively known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, which offer realistic portraits of black lives in 20th century America, using heightened language and fraught situations to make their points. Their importance is undisputed and their relevance makes the gifted author seem positively prescient.
It’s impossible to transform these masterworks into movies without acknowledging their stage origins. Wilson’s characters are given to speechifying, whether taking the solo spotlight or verbally battling each other. Director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson don’t arbitrarily “open up” the play, which is deliberately claustrophobic. The confrontations seem to blossom in the choked atmosphere of a soulless recording studio and a shabby basement rehearsal room. (A shout-out here to Mark Ricker’s evocative production design, which fixes the time frame as the 1920s.)
Viola Davis cannot deliver an inauthentic performance. We’ve never seen her tackle a role quite like Ma Rainey, a real-life figure who was known as “the mother of the blues.” Under a coat of sweat and runny makeup she transforms herself into the fire-and-brimstone performer who’s going to give her white masters what they want but not without extracting a pound of flesh—and a couple of Coca-Colas.
Chadwick Boseman matches her with his scorching portrayal of a young hotshot who hasn’t yet dealt with the realities of succeeding in a white man’s world. Compromise is a foreign concept to him, and we watch helplessly as he gives in to a whirlpool of extreme emotions.
The other musicians are played by Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and Glynn Turman (who was so good in this season of Fargo). Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom preserves one of August Wilson’s enduring works for all time, enacted by a dream cast.