Cinematic adaptations of stage works are a trap. The screen comes with four walls, a roof, and a ceiling. If improperly handled, the translation constricts these barriers, choking any pleasure from the audience. Often, the damning review echoing across the end credits is, “Yeah, it felt like a play.” Followed by a brutal shrug.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom bypasses any such dismissal with a pair of crackling performances and a camera that knows when to pull back and when to live on the actors’ faces. Director George C. Wolfe blows out August Wilson‘s drama by getting tighter, turning his audience’s sense of claustrophobia against them, and nailing their attention to the broken and fortified souls on display. The ticket purchased comes with no exit. Escape is a luxury, and you should know none.
Screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson presents an affectionate adaptation. With only a few exceptions, the narrative adheres closely to what Wilson crafted in 1982. One does not tinker with dialogue so hot and electrically terminal.
Locked in a recording studios’ dungeon, a band of musicians tirelessly await the arrival of “The Mother of Blues,” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Their young upstart cornet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) is seemingly sizzling from the charge of his own ego, but as his mates jab at his defenses, a long-gestating trauma cracks him wide open. When Ma finally arrives with girlfriend (Taylour Paige) and nephew (Dusan Brown) in tow, the band bashes against their two desperately white producers as well as each other.
Viola Davis is a titan on screen. She fills the frame with her power, turning tall men small and small men even smaller. Her stride cuts through the room, but it’s her cemented feet that make an even bolder impression. Ma Rainey cannot be moved. She stands where she wants to stand. She goes where she wants to go.
This freedom only comes from her ability to make money for the white men who dangle above her in the sound booth. Her manager (Jeremy Shamos) quakes and quivers at her feet, but behind every anguished plea is a threat. His worship arrives on the greenbacks of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Benjamin Franklin. If they take flight, so does his smile.
From Levee’s perspective, Ma is god-like. She’s got the powers-that-be sniveling. It’s a glorious sight, and he craves some of that for himself.
In what would be his final live-action performance, Chadwick Boseman rages with charisma. He’s split down the middle, nerves exposed, tendrils snapping out at everyone around him — every action a spar, every jab a hit.
Levee meets the world armored in confidence. He feels the culture shift; the music is turning to his style of aggressive thump. The kids want something they can dance to, and he’s the guy to give it to them. A tempo boost equals a wad in his pocket, chipped off from the money bags who loom over everything. Even Ma’s producers must recognize his talent.
And they do.
It’s worth five bucks a song.
After a lifetime of show, Ma Rainey amassed a following of Black dollars, and she brought them to the wallets of white business. Without an audience to back him, Levee’s talent carries no weight. He’s a mind to be exploited, and the revelation is a slash that digs as deep as the many other wounds afflicted upon him by America’s hateful system.
Boseman delicately handles Levee’s cocktail of agony and fury. He’s an uncomfortable watch. He’s jittery and magnetic. The pain is real and personal. You find yourself wincing, pulling your fingers over your eyes, but never shutting them. There’s a tragedy building within his case of flesh and bones; as the passions split and spill forth, they poison all those around him except those most deserving.
There’s no doubt that on a stage, Davis and Boseman would not only intoxicate but dominate. It’s easy to imagine a room watching from the pit, their heads leaning forward, hungry for every morsel being fed from the towering actors. Davis and Boseman serve one helluva meal.
As assembled by George C. Wolfe, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom pulls you out of your seat and drops you on the stage. There’s no need to lean. His camera relieves his performers, allowing for a stillness the play could never satisfy. Its very presence is a validation for the film’s existence.
Like many stage-to-screen adaptations, the film does not break away into many vistas, large or small. You’re stuck in the studio with the band. The script is as suffocating as the location. You’re meant to gasp for breath; your gagging matches that of the characters.
Wolfe’s camera stifles even further as it presses into Davis and Boseman. Every drip of sweat and every twitch of muscle reads like thunder. August Wilson screams for your attention, and these actors are shaking you by the shoulders. There’s no seat in front of you to hide your head; there’s no sand to plunge neck deep into. The film does all but tear your eyelids off.
If anything, the story works better as a movie. You’re tied to Levee and Ma’s experience. It’s a knife fight. When the bodies hit the ground, the blood is on your shoes. There’s nowhere to step away.