Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★★

George C. Wolfe’s screen adaptation of August Wilson’s play is astonishingly good, not least because of its remarkably creative staging. It irks me when people dismiss a play adaptation as “stagy” simply because it only has a few locations - when in fact many of these films are helmed by directors who know how to block a scene and make dynamic use out of a small space (look no further than any play-to-film adaptation by Sidney Lumet or Mike Nichols). After getting so accustomed to “naturalistic” filmmaking in which the actors aren’t even asked to move, it’s almost startling to watch a film like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, where each scene crackles with energy as Wolfe finds a way to keep the actors and camera in perfect rhythm with each other.

Of course, the main attraction here is the performances, and both Viola Davis (as ‘Mother of the Blues’ Ma Rainey) and the late Chadwick Boseman are phenomenal.

The film is particularly insightful about the experience of African-American performers, whose work is commonly co-opted by white executives. Ma Rainey spends much of the film haranguing and making demands of her white manager, and there’s a temptation at first to view her character as embittered and entitled. And yet we come to understand that she must behave this way, or else she’ll meet the same fate as Boseman’s tragedy-bound trumpet player - who unwisely entrusts a studio executive with his original music in the hopes of a recording opportunity.

There’s a great deal of anger in this film - both Davis and Boseman’s characters have hardened themselves to withstand the blows life has dealt them - but whereas Ma Rainey no longer trusts anyone, Boseman’s musician still holds a glimmer of hope for a better, more prosperous future. Both of them deserve better than they get.