REEL Review – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

Director: George C. Wolfe | 1h 34mins | Drama, Music

On a hot summers day in 1927 Chicago Illinois, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band begin a recording session. Things get heated when her ambitious trumpet player, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), challenges the way in which they play.

In 2016’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences we once again saw the true power of the stage play adjusted ever so slightly to create something cinematic. Film’s that take their story and setting from the stage are unique in a way, often keeping the camera muted when necessary in order to amplify the words being spoken, as well as allowing the acting firepower to flourish with the emotional range of their roles – and Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is no different. Adapting another August Wilson play of the same name, the film bolsters fiery monologues oozing with passion and symbolism, but gives us some beautiful cinematography to match. 

This is no more apparent than the opening scenes, as Ma Rainey’s band make their way through a sweaty Chicago in the peak of summertime, dodging the disgusted looks they are met with until they get to the recording studio. Once put into the ‘band room’, they start chewing the fat and the monologuing begins. But, in very August Wilson fashion, the symbolic implications of each speech is much greater than the casual demeanour of it’s characters. 

The band members are Toledo (Glynn Turman); Slow Drag (Michael Potts); Culter (Colman Domingo) and Levee. The four of them spend the majority of the film riffing and arguing, and even becoming a little violent towards one another. But their conversations are important, Toledo tells a story about a man selling his soul to the devil which comes extremely close to Levee’s plans to sell music to the white man. All four performers are great, but it has to be said that Boseman is in his element. Levee is a character with high hopes and strong afflictions, a man made up of so much inner anger, and Boseman captures it with flare and such a raw presence. 

When the older members of the group shrug at Levee’s hopes and dreams, accusing him of not understanding what the white people take from black people, Boseman delivers a devastating monologue about his Mother, who was raped by a group of white men. It’s a lengthy speech, but Boseman is in full control. Much like the men he’s delivering it too, you can’t help but stare wide-eyed at the performance he’s giving. But, there’s a speech of his that hits home a little too much. Boseman’s passing is a devastating loss of talent and of a person, so when Levee begins to scream with uncontrollable rage about God turning his back on him we as an audience become overwhelmed outside of the film’s narrative. 

As you’d expect from Davis, Ma Rainey is played with a demanding and overpowering presence and although Davis is a little more caricature than she was in Fences, she’s still on top form.

This isn’t just about rising tensions and throwaway conversations though, it’s about the exploitation of Black talent carried out by white people – this is where real-life character Ma Rainey comes in. As you’d expect from Davis, Ma Rainey is played with a demanding and overpowering presence and although Davis is a little more caricature than she was in Fences, she’s still on top form. Ma Rainey at first comes across as a Diva, incapable of completing the simplest of tasks until they’re done to her exact vision (she refuses to sing the first song until she’s had a bottle of Coca-Cola). But in reality this is a Black superstar that is just maintaining her power for as long as possible. 

For all the good and ‘bending over backwards’ that her manager and the stage manager are doing for her, they are doing it out of selfish means. She is nothing to them but money, and Ma Rainey’s powerful presence and star power are merely an obstacle they have to endure until the recording is done. Stories like this, as well as Fences, are the reason that August Wilson is so acclaimed as a writer, and what George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have done is create a similar importance in their adaptation, one that feels cinematically relevant even today.

Being set during the infancy of Blues gives the film such a fast-paced and stylised soundtrack, one that’s essential to breaking up the film’s often constant rise. But it’s the cinematography that’s also incredibly important. Wolfe and Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler make the dusty sound studio feel like the centre of everything, it feels incredibly authentic against the streets of Chicago, and it creates an invigorating backdrop for the many monologues and scenes that come from this film. 

There’s a running device in this film of Levee trying to open a door for himself in the sweltering conditions of the claustrophobic ‘band room’. The symbolism, while being a little obvious, is an incredibly poignant reminder of the true power this film has. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t just a film about a condensed studio session, it’s a symbol of the oppressive struggle still being tackled today. A reminder that for a lot of people, breaking down a door is usually followed by a brick wall. It’s powerfully performed, and it’s with a heavy heart that we say Chadwick Boseman gives the best performance of his career, continuously amplifying the film that is sadly his last. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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