George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of the August Wilson play is a demonstration of captivating and powerful acting. Although it never seems to flourish visually, the chamber-piece story and powerful performance of the late Chadwick Boseman and the supporting ensemble carry it far.
The entire film takes place during the recording for the ‘mother of the blues’, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). A trumpet player in her backing band, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), has an alternative composition for her song Black Bottom, causing disagreement about whose version they will perform. Levee has ambitions in a music industry controlled by white men (something Ma Rainey knows all too well), leading him to balance an ego that occasionally gets in front of him with deference to men who don’t deserve his patience. Keeping the peace are the other band members: pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and the calmly authoritative Cutler (Colman Domingo).
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM shares several aspects – both behind and in front of the camera – with another recent August Wilson adaptation. FENCES, adapted from another play in the Pittsburgh Cycle, counted Viola Davis in a lead role and Denzel Washington as a producer. Much like FENCES, this new film (adapted from the only Pittsburgh Cycle play not set in Pennsylvania’s second city) also showcases exceptional acting in dialogue-heavy scenes, perhaps at the expense of visual storytelling.
The heart of the film lies with the late Chadwick Boseman, giving Levee infectious energy and generating empathy despite his naive arrogance. More than that, however, is that Boseman can swivel his character’s tone as quickly as he moves in the smart yellow shoes on which Levee blows his money. When Boseman’s moments in the script come, he doesn’t waste them: a monologue about his experience of violent racism is delivered powerfully, such that his experience of a quieter, insidiously Janus-faced version at the film’s conclusion hits all the harder.
The script is loquacious, so it helps that the most prominent supporting role lands with Colman Domingo, an actor delivering lines in a manner befitting the mellifluent setting of a musical recording studio. It will be challenging to come out of MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM without reciting his repeated, smooth refrain of “One, two, you know what to do.” Domingo’s presence, though, points to the compelling ensemble cast as a whole; each member is counterbalancing the more youthful and fidgety performance of Boseman. Domingo’s calm demeanour balances and contrasts with Boseman’s animated and kinetic movements. The wise humility of Michael Potts’s Slow Drag and Glynn Turman’s Toledo is the antithesis of the younger man’s whirling attempts to prove himself to all those around him. His anxiousness to be valued compares with Ma making her value known to all around. The banal privilege and laurel-resting of both Ma’s white manager and the producer (Jeremy Shamos and Jonny Coyne) look all the worse against Levee’s talent and ambition.
Visually, director George C. Wolfe keeps things mostly functional across the two locations (the band’s rehearsal space and the recording studio). The lack of flair here is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the slightly staid visual approach fails to break up scenes in the rehearsal room, when cinematic approaches to scenes like these can have a transformative effect on the pacing of the dialogue and story (something notably effective in Regina King’s ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI). However, the performances are tuned so well, and Wilson’s speech so stirring, that covering them up with flashier formal elements may have detracted from the cast’s chemistry and elegant ensemble dynamic.
The talk around MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM will inevitably focus upon posthumous recognition for Chadwick Boseman. Although his appearance deserves praise, it shouldn’t be at the expense of highlighting an ensemble performance pitched and delivered perfectly, within a film constructed to highlight the best elements of the production.