The film version of August Wilson’s play about a jazz recording session in 1927 features Viola Davis in the title role, and Chadwick Boseman as the dramatic center, of a story about the corrosive bitterness of American racism.
A few years ago I saw August Wilson’s 1982 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in an Arizona Theatre Company production in Tucson. It was excellent. Then, last year, George C. Wolfe directed a film adaptation starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Now, it’s not a criticism of the stage version that I saw to say that I understood the play a lot better seeing it on film. Wilson’s writing is so densely layered that it takes, at least for me, seeing or reading his plays more than once to grasp the complex meaning and nuances of the texts. In addition, a film has the benefit of a director’s visual emphasis, camera movement, and close-ups to bring things to the surface, although there’s also much to be said for the three dimensional experience of the theater. Suffice it to say, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on film, with a script adapted from the play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, does justice to one of the most important works by the late American playwright.
The title refers to a song by the real life blues singer from the 1920s and’ 30s, nicknamed Ma Rainey. The action takes place in a Chicago recording studio in July of 1927, where a white producer has arranged with Rainey’s white agent for her and her band, all African Americans, to record some songs for a new record. The band arrives first, headed by Toledo, the pianist played by Glynn Turman. Eventually their young trumpeter shows up, Levee Green, played by Boseman, and we can see trouble already brewing—Levee wants to play the songs his way, and we discover that he’s trying to get his own record deal for his own songs with the producer.
Wolfe takes the action outside for a brief sequence in which Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis, arrives late and gets in a fender bender, which her agent has to try to negotiate her out of. She’s angry and acts arrogantly, complaining that she hasn’t been given a Coca-Cola as her contract requires. Davis’s bold, raw performance gradually lets us understand her deep sense of grievance against the white-dominated music business which seeks only to exploit her talents to the utmost for their own profits. Her deliberate provocations throughout the session are symptoms of her resentment, born through long experience. She insists that her nephew, who has accompanied her, read some introductory words at the beginning of the record, even though he has a stutter. Bickering ensues between the producer and the singer, and between band members, and especially from the hot-headed Levee.
August Wilson created a tapestry of the African American experience in his plays, including one central ten-play sequence, of which this is one, spanning the early to mid-20th century, with each play taking place in a different decade. The conversations in between the recording sessions in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom lay bare the mental and emotional anguish of life for black Americans in the Jim Crow era. The older musicians clash with Levee, but monologues reveal how each of them has had to deal with monstrous insults, indignities, and worse—just trying to have a life in the midst of white supremacy. What seems at first mere foolhardiness on the part of Levee, we eventually see springs from the bitter truth of the tragedy and oppression he has known in his own family. One of Wilson’s persistent themes is how the relentless pressure of racism produces conflict not only between the races, but within the black community itself, struggling to retain some kind of self-respect despite everything.
It should be evident by now that Viola Davis is one of the great actresses of our time, and here she outdoes herself in a portrait of a proud and stubborn blues artist who refuses to ever bow down. Turman is brilliant as the seasoned older musician who has seen too much to be surprised anymore. The rest of the cast is exemplary. Most memorable of all is Chadwick Boseman, transforming young Levee into the complicated and turbulent center of the drama, with remarkable power. His death last August at the age of 43 robbed us of an actor of rare talent and promise.
Denzel Washington heads up the group of producers who are committed to presenting August Wilson’s ten-play cycle on film. He directed and played the lead in Fences a few years back, co-starring with Davis, and that was a triumph. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second production in this series, and it’s worth every minute of your time.