By Jake Watt
17th March 2021

In 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom', a bunch of people sit in some rooms. They talk. They have different views on the world and what it is. None of them is really able to gain an upper hand at bringing the other closer to their own point of view. Eventually, you begin to realise this isn't just an argument between a bunch of people; it's a clash of perspectives, a desperate struggle between assorted creeds that can easily be seen as self-defeating. Eventually one "triumphs," but only in the sense that they are able to escape the situation with his or her worldview mostly intact. It all feels far more apocalyptic than it really probably should.

That's the extremely basic outline for the plot of George C. Wolfe's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom', based on the 1982 play of the same name by August Wilson. It's also the map for thousands upon thousands of other plays. Some of those plays are good. Some of those plays are bad. Some are absurd. Some are dour and realistic. But the idea of people discussing how they see the world and trying to bring each other to that viewpoint is one of the central underpinnings of the modern drama scene.

Set in the 1920s, the film tells a day-in-the-life story of legendary blues icon Ma Rainey (Viola Davis, 'Widows', 'Suicide Squad'), as she travels to Chicago with her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos, 'Bad Education') to record some of her greatest hits with Georgia Jazz Band members Toledo (Glynn Turman, 'Bumblebee'), Cutler (Colman Domingo, 'Selma', 'If Beale Street Could Talk'), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), along with her producer Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne, 'Nightcrawler').


The headstrong Ma demands a bottle of Coca-Cola, insists on offering her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) a prominent part in the album recording, and proceeds to butts heads with an impetuous and ambitious trumpeter named Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman, 'Black Panther'). Also exacerbating tensions is the exploitative nature of the blues recording industry of the early 20th century - the music business has always been shady, but I don't think anybody had it worse than these early black artists.

Essentially a chamber play set in a series of dimly lit, secluded rooms in the basement of the recording studio, the staging of 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' is so closely related to the source material that it detracts from the film. Wolfe is a renowned theatre director, but film is its own medium, and needs to be exploited for the benefits it can bring to storytelling - the lift and shift of the stage show to film prevents this one from really succeeding. Recent films like Regina King's adaptation of 'One Night in Miami' and Kornél Mundruczó's adaptation of 'Pieces of a Woman' successfully navigated this, whereas 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' feels too disjointed and confined - even more so than 'Fences', a previous August Wilson adaptation directed by Denzel Washington (who produced Wolfe's film).

Film is its own medium and needs to be exploited for the benefits it can bring to storytelling - the lift and shift of the stage show to film prevents this one from really succeeding.

The main attraction here stems from the words and the actors. Domingo is always terrific, Boseman is convincing and human with difficult material, Turman is granted his own moment to shine with a sage monologue at the seat of a piano, and Davis is revelatory. No opportunity is wasted and she brings a towering physicality to the role (contrasting interestingly with her meek character in 'Fences'). Davis does an incredible job of channelling Ma's righteous indignation as a black woman who deserves far more than she gets (and is well aware of that fact), and the strength that a woman must have to stand up for herself in a white man's society. The dialogue may give the impression of rambling at times, especially when the band members are interacting with each other, but each word uttered is reflective of the characters and their respective mindsets.

As a film adaptation, 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' isn't so much a movie as it is a play with a few more options; a showcase for its actors rather than a cinematic experience. But the play it adapts is very good, one of my favourites of Wilson's. It's from an era of theatre in the United States that dealt heavily with the casualties of the American Dream, where you're sold a bill of goods but they'll never come through for you and you spend your whole life chasing a phantom. I think those messages are still relevant - if not more so now - than they were when they were originally written.

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