Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by George C. Wolfe, written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and based on August Wilson’s play, is centered around the legendary Blues singer Ma Rainey and her band. The movie focuses on an afternoon recording session and the heated back and forth between Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman), the band members, and Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) herself. But what looks like conversations on music and ownership of songs cleverly turns into a searing discourse on racism. And with some expert direction, cinematography, and editing, Wolfe manages to capture Boseman and Davis’s electric performances, leaving you wanting for more.
The first time that I got to witness Chadwick Boseman’s acting prowess was in 2013’s 42. I was absolutely mesmerised by his range, his ability to emote so much without doing a lot, and how he could use his physicality to do more than what other actors do in their entire cinematic career. Post that I was lucky enough to watch him give us straight-up bangers like Get on Up, Message from the King, Marshall, 21 Bridges, Da 5 Bloods, and of course, his performances as T’Challa/Black Panther, while taking the battle to cancer like the boss he is on-screen! Like everyone else, I was just heartbroken not just because he was one of my favourite actors but also because he was also an insanely nice human being. And TBH I was not ready to see his closing act in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. But I did and I am glad that I did because it’s a performance you won’t want to miss.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is directed by George C. Wolfe. It’s written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and is based on August Wilson’s play of the same name. The music is Branford Marsalis, cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler, editing by Andrew Mondshein, production design by Mark Ricker, set decoration by Karen O’Hara and Diana Stoughton, costume design by Ann Roth, hair and makeup by Matiki Anoff, Larry M. Cherry, and Mia Neal, and visual effects by Zero VFX and Powerhouse VFX (It’s worth mentioning them because there’s a fair bit of VFX work here). It features Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Dusan Brown, and more. The story revolves around an afternoon recording session where Ma’s band is waiting for her arrival and having some banter. But due to Levee’s (Boseman) ambitious dreams, things heat up between him and everyone, including Ma, leading to a pretty explosive discourse on racism and gaining prominence as an artist.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s script for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is verbose and engaging.
Let’s get one thing clear, in case if you haven’t watched the original play (Which I’m guessing will be the case if you’re from India), this movie isn’t about legendary Blues singer and queer icon Ma Rainey. There are shades of it, yes. But this is largely about the song Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and which version works better, Ma’s or Levee Green’s, her band’s trumpeter. Levee is hell-bent on proving that his version is better and gets the crowd on its feet while Ma and the band are adamant that the original is better because, well, it’s the original. The escalation happens in three stages: the light-hearted conversation that gives us a good idea of who’s who, Levee talking about his mother, and Levee versus Cutler versus God. The movie obviously goes on a little more after that final altercation but it’s the one conversation that hints at where it’s going to conclude and the meaning that’s going to come out of that conclusion.
So, what is it about? Now, I am no expert on African-American culture, but from what I could gather after watching years of movies that it is essentially about Black solidarity. And that underlying sentiment is in the fight over the two versions of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom itself and is reiterated throughout the many conversations, especially the stuff Toledo (Turman) says. Hudson and Wilson are basically saying that when the majority is trying to oppose minorities in any way possible, we shouldn’t give them another chance on a golden plate by bickering about who among the minority is better, no matter how emotionally packed their reasons are. It’s just not worth it. They should help each other to rise through the ranks and then think about who is better and who is more deserving and whatnot. The setting of the conversations and the conclusion is very indicative of that as they happen in isolation and have little-to-no-impact on the larger revolution that’s needed even now for African-Americans to be treated equally.
George C. Wolfe’s depiction of a long-drawn discussion on racism and success is straight-up hypnotic.
The best way to describe the tone that Wolfe adapts for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a mixture of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men and Regina King’s One Night In Miami. Yes, because it largely happens in one location. But in addition to that, like the aforementioned movies, Wolfe manages to emulate the dizziness and deliriousness that is an inevitable side-effect of the unending, cyclical conversations on sensitive topics like racism and classism taking place in a claustrophobic setting. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s so engaging that you forget for the longest periods of time that the camera hasn’t moved out of a room and you get so invested in the debate that you inadvertently start to take sides before the tension is broken by an external entity. Part of the credit undoubtedly goes to the writing but a major chunk of the credit goes to Mondshein and Tobias for keeping things engaging and maintaining the essence of its stage-play origins.
Now, that’s a lot of “what” Wolfe does in the movie but not a lot of “how”. How does he manage to do all that? Well, as far as I can gather, by taking the simplest and minimalist approach to block a scene and then letting the actors do their magic. The production design, costume design, sound design, lighting, and everything else from a visual standpoint is immaculate and immersive enough. So, there’s no need to unnecessarily tax the viewer by doing anything over-the-top. There aren’t any sweeping camera movements or snazzy edits. Everything is kept at its bare minimum and the performances are so good that you wouldn’t want to undercut it by doing anything. Just take a look at Boseman’s monologue where he narrates what happened to his mother. I think there are a sum total of three camera angles. In one instance the camera zooms into Boseman to capture the minute flickers on his face. That’s it. That’s enough to make you bawl.
Viola Davis as the titular Ma Rainey is mind-blowing but this is an out-and-out Chadwick Boseman show.
Let’s talk about Boseman first because this is his movie, essentially. From the word go, he’s in character. The sleaze and arrogance just drip off of him. The hunger for greatness comes later. He’s so far gone into the skin of Levee that even when he is in the background, which is where he remains every time Viola’s Ma Rainey comes into the scene, you can see him behaving like Levee even though the camera is not him. That’s how dedicated his performance is here. I have already mentioned his monologue. But his altercation with Cutler about God and how God has turned his back on Black people is by far some of the best screen acting I have seen all year. It starts off on a high note and then it escalates and escalates and simply explodes. The way he expresses Levee’s pain, anguish, rage, and self-pity is truly astonishing to watch. I think I won’t be exaggerating if I say it’s Boseman’s best performance and deserving of all the awards.
Viola Davis as the title character is absolutely magnetic. Like Chadwick, she just vanishes into her character. Everything from her body language to her vocal inflections, the way she looks, and the way she dominates the screen every time she enters is just masterful. She exudes a sense of fear. And as the movie progresses, you’ll realise that it is a kind of fear that is necessary to deflect the constant sense of oppression that’s circling around her. In the wrong hands, this performance could have easily come off as villainous. But Davis makes everything about Ma’s aura feel necessary. Even when she’s silently looking off-camera, you can feel it. Why wasn’t she there in the movie more? I don’t know and it’s a question I’ll keeping myself. The rest of the supporting cast is brilliant, with Colman Dingo’s Cutler taking a lot of the spotlight and actually acting as the best foil for Boseman, thereby accentuating his performance. I don’t know if that was a conscious choice but it worked so that’s great.
Just this once, I am going to keep it simple. Watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for Chadwick Boseman.
Rest in power, King.
Cover image courtesy: Netflix