Art and capitalism can be uneasy bedfellows. In our society each depends on the other to some extent. The exploitation of art in the name of money is nothing new, but things could be changing. Critical examinations are now happening around their relationship, particularly as it intersects with issues of race and power. Steven Soderbergh recently took up the issue in his Netflix film High Flying Bird. Now director George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) brings a different perspective to the same issue with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
At time of writing, this film is generating a lot of Oscar buzz. The fact it’s Chadwick Boseman’s last film certainly plays a part. But the project also casts the mighty Viola Davis in a work originally written by August Wilson – a combination that proved so successful in Fences*.
Actor-turned-writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapts Wilson’s play of the same name. Being a play, the action is pretty confined. Most of the film happens in two rooms; though Wolfe breaks out with a couple of digressions. Also, being a play, the actors get to deliver sometimes-lengthy monologues. This often falls flat in films, but here the power of Wilson’s words and the strong performances elevate the technique.
In the summer of 1927, Ma Rainey (Davis) has set up a recording date at a Chicago studio. But the “Mother of the Blues” is running late, so her band arrives first. Trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), the leader, wants to get down to rehearsing even though the band room is oppressively hot. Pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) are happy to go along, but hotshot trumpeter Levee (Boseman) is goofing around. Levee (as revealed in a small prologue) thinks he’s the star, much to the annoyance of the older men.
When Ma finally arrives (after a fender-bender in the street), she also doesn’t seem to be in any hurry. Her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and studio owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) are just about tearing their hair out. The situation is only exacerbated by the presence of Ma’s nervous nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). No one seems to know quite why he’s even there. And Ma’s flirtatious girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) catches Levee’s wandering eye. In the pressure-cooker of the steamy studio, conflict is almost inevitable.
Like many Wilson works, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t about its ostensible subject. This isn’t about making a record, or even about Ma Rainey – it’s about power. The power dynamics shift markedly over the course of the film. Seemingly small things – a new pair of shoes or a bottle of Coca-Cola – assume far greater proportions. The racial dynamics emerge relatively slowly, but the ending presses home Wilson’s key point. But it’s not his only point. Along the way, he takes pointed aim at a range of targets. So this isn’t a one-note didactic. It’s a twisting tale of human interactions fuelled by a variety of baser instincts.
Wolfe directs the main section of the film in a solid but not overly flashy style. But he allows himself a couple of flourishes in the its bookend scenes. Tobias Schliessler (Spenser Confidential) shoots the film in highly saturated sepia tones, lending it both a period feel and a sense of hyper-reality. Branford Marsalis provides the powerful, blues-heavy soundtrack.
Wilson is a demanding playwright, but the storied cast are more than up to the challenge. Chadwick Boseman (Da 5 Bloods) was already battling illness when he made this film but still manages to shine as the cocky Levee. It’s a performance of passion and anger; but tempered by some quieter moments. Viola Davis (Widows) once more proves a force of nature as the no-nonsense Ma. Coleman Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) brings a quiet dignity to Cutler, while Glynn Turman (The Way Back) and Michael Potts (Here and Now) both lend strong support as the other band members.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is definitely not a popcorn movie. This dense, intelligent film demands a lot. But as the film suggests, greatness doesn’t come easy.
*Davis’s co-star in Fences, Denzel Washington, serves as a producer on this film
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now showing on Netflix
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television