Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom makes timid leap from stage to screen

Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman give seismic performances perfectly suited for the stage in this Netflix movie


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
David Lee/NETFLIX

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (George C. Wolfe). 94 minutes. Streams from Friday (December 18) on Netflix Canada. Rating: NNN


The scene that stays with me most from the Netflix adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom barely includes those much-celebrated and admittedly seismic performances from Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. The scene doesn’t even come from August Wilson’s play.

I’m referring to the evocative cold-open, where two young black boys run breathlessly through the woods at night, the sounds of dogs barking somewhere in the back, as if in pursuit. Are they runaway slaves? The intonations certainly suggest that.

But then comes relief. They arrive at a tent where an imposing woman decked out as if it were Mardi Gras sings for a large audience. Those boys were running to hear Ma “Mother of the Blues” Rainey, in concert.

This isn’t a self-satisfied gotcha moment from director George C. Wolfe, but a brilliant way to condense and collapse at least 50 years of history in one swift movement. That sprint through the woods begins by invoking slavery and heads north, so to speak, progressing towards the 1920s, where the stage is set for Davis’s Ma Rainey.

That the most memorable sequence from the film is free from the limitations of Wilson’s play is obvious. The source material is thoroughly researched and rich. (Soulpepper gave us an award-winning production in 2018.) The movie, produced by Denzel Washington with a screenplay adapted by Ruben Santiago-Husband, is too timid to stray from it. Can you blame anyone for not wanting to mess with Wilson’s beautiful words? Washington certainly didn’t when he directed Davis to an Oscar for another Wilson adaptation, Fences.

But this is a story that rewards being able to stretch its legs on screen and explore the moment in culture and history in ways that the play couldn’t.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about a revolutionary period when jazz and the Harlem Renaissance gave Black people a voice – think Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes – while people were being lynched in the Jim Crow south. Hollywood positioned plus-size Black woman as mammies in this period between The Birth Of A Nation and Gone With The Wind, creating an archetype that was sassy but servile to white supremacy. But then you had figures like Ma Rainey, who were anything but.

In Wolfe’s film, the out-lesbian is decked out with extravagant jewellery, singing the blues and commanding her space in the recording studio. Davis plays Ma under heavy padding and thick oily makeup that looks like she diluted shoe polish, grease and lipstick splatter. (Makeup companies didn’t produce for Black women at the time, so performers had to employ DIY creativity.)

The role is a far cry from the more teary and shook roles Davis has earned Oscar nominations for in the past: a worried mother in Doubt; a modern mammy in The Help; the under-appreciated housewife in Fences.

Here she spits hellfire as Ma, towering over management who don’t meet her every demands, whether it’s paying her nephew to work through his stuttering as a band member during a recording, or making sure she has exactly the right number of colas handy before she sings. She is the type to be painted as a difficult, egotistical and angry Black woman. Trust Wilson’s play and Davis’s revealing performance to be more inquisitive, digging for depth and insight into the relationship between economics and behaviour.

Boseman’s trumpet player, Levee, is the talented forward-thinking nuisance Ma is ready to stomp out. The two butt heads with each other in between their separate feuds with the white management.

Levee is intensely hungry for the spotlight but also incredibly haunted by trauma from growing up in the south. It’s the kind of role Washington himself might have played when he was younger. Here it gives Boseman a lot to chew on for his final performance.

Boseman died from colon cancer in August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a fine reminder of his immense talent, warranting premature calls for a posthumous Oscar.

And we’re perfectly satisfied seeing Boseman go big with it, even if it seems like he’s performing for the audience at the back of a theatre.

@justsayrad

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