Brilliant Acting Makes ‘Ma Rainey’ A Transcendent Film


Chadwick Boseman portrays Levee, and Viola Davis plays the title character in the Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It began streaming Dec. 18.

(Photo: Netflix)

About two-thirds of the way through the new Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the title character, played with magisterial prickliness by Viola Davis, is sitting in a Chicago recording studio, chatting with her music director, a trombonist named Cutler (Colman Domingo). It’s 1927, and she’s at the peak of her career, with a large and loyal following in the rural South, and, thanks to recordings, a growing audience across the country.

Rainey has come to Chicago to cut a handful of new sides for her record company, but at this point in the plot, precious little progress has been made. Despite the best efforts of her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), things keep bogging down. At the moment, she’s waiting for Slow Drag and Toledo, her bassist and pianist, to fetch bottles of soda to soothe her thirst. “Too cheap to buy me a Coca-Cola,” she complains to Cutler of Irvin and record company chief Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne).

Sturdyvant, meanwhile, makes it plain that he sees her behavior as petulance. But for Rainey, it’s calculated payback. “They don’t care nothing about me,” she tells Cutler. “All they want is my voice.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the heart of director George C. Wolfe’s version of August Wilson’s 1982 play.

Just as slavery turned Black lives into living capital, so later did the recording industry commoditize Black voices. It isn’t simply that Irvin and his ilk use technology to turn a one-time performance into something that endlessly could be replayed, and repeatedly sold. By capturing that performance in the studio, they effectively own Ma Rainey’s music. She knows this, and her behavior is meant to ensure that Irvin and Sturdyvant pay something more than royalties for the privilege.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is among the 10 plays in Wilson’s famous Pittsburgh Cycle; producer/actor Denzel Washington already has helped turn two of them into films, and he plans to tackle the other eight as well.

Although there was a real Ma Rainey (1886–1939), a touring and recording star in the 1920s, dubbed “Mother of the Blues” by her label, Paramount Records, the Rainey we see on-screen is a fictional version of the blues great, and the members of her band are likewise invented. This isn’t history, at least not in the literal sense. Instead, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a parable about art and commerce as distorted by the lens of American racism, and how that story gets told by the blues.

“White folk don’t understand about the blues,” Rainey tells Cutler. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing because that’s a way of understanding life.”

A lesser playwright might have made Rainey the sole focus of the action. But Wilson, whose work articulated complicated, often contradictory dimensions of Black life, knew that you couldn’t have a singer without also having a band. So, he gives us Cutler, bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and the brash, gifted cornetist Levee (Chadwick Boseman).

The contrast between Levee and the others is obvious. Where his bandmates are older, more stoic, and duly committed to playing what Ma Rainey wants them to play, Levee is vain, excitable and ambitious—full of talent, but also full of himself. Not only has he worked up a new, hot-jazz arrangement for the tune “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but he also has been composing his own music. He’s shown the songs to Sturdyvant in hopes of getting record deal for himself.

In Wilson’s play, the character note for Levee describes him as a “buffoon,” adding that he “plays wrong notes frequently. He often gets his skill and talent confused with each other.” The film version is far kinder, thanks in large part to Boseman’s brilliantly nuanced performance.

This was the last role Boseman played before succumbing to colon cancer on Aug. 28. Film critics have praised this as the best performance of Boseman’s career, which included acclaimed work as Jackie Robinson in 42 and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, plus the title character in the superhero blockbuster Black Panther.

In Boseman’s hands, Levee remains a bit of a clown, but also genuinely, if brokenly, heroic. We see his determination, along with the desperation that lurks beneath it, and when he delivers the soliloquy about what resentful white farmers did to his family when he was a child, Boseman makes Levee almost incandescent with rage, shame and a hunger for revenge.

In adapting the play, screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson bookends Wilson’s story with two musical sequences. The first, showing Ma Rainey and her band playing to an enthusiastic crowd in a backwoods tent in Georgia, vividly demonstrates her power and popularity. The last, by contrast, quietly and damningly illustrates the way the music industry has treated talented unfortunates like Levee.

Despite this story’s tragic end, there’s plenty of wit and grace in the telling. When Rainey’s stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) finally nails the spoken introduction to the title tune, the mix of joy, pride and surprise on his face is a wonder to behold.

Likewise, the gruff affection that animates the banter between Cutler, Toledo and Slow Drag will resonate with anyone who has spent years sharing the bandstand with the same musicians. And when the actors do “play,” they handle their instruments with credible familiarity.

Finally, there’s Rainey herself. Davis—who won an Oscar for her role in the 2016 film adaptation of Wilson’s play Fences—understands how to use her character’s sly intelligence and iron will to show us someone whose greatest triumph is getting her due in a system that’s gamed against her. Ultimately, what Wilson’s Rainey wants is respect, and that’s exactly what this film gives her. DB

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December 2023
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