The term “Race Records” describes a time from the 1920s to the 1940s in which Black artists recorded songs for Black audiences. Despite selling well and launching such stars as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, most musicians fell victim to exploitation by white record company management. The late August Wilson wrote about this conflict in his 1982 play about a single day in a recording studio. Ma Rainey, the Mother Of The Blues, and her band come to Chicago in 1927 to lay down some tracks, facing off against the white powers that be and, more searingly, against each other. Now brought to the screen by director George C. Wolfe (Angels In America) and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, at a swift 94 minutes, feels current, relevant, and powerful, and features two great performances from its stars, Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman.
Opening on a pair of young men racing through the woods, one might think they had stumbled upon a horror film, but their destination, one of Ma Rainey’s celebrated tent shows, immediately changes the tone and reveals Davis commanding the crowd as the titular character. We also notice her band made up of its leader and trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and trumpeter Levee (Boseman), the latter who ogles Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) at the edge of the stage. So much story gets crammed into this gorgeously shot sequence with its adoring crowds, lived-in, hard worn blues singing, newspaper clippings and photos from the era depicting the Great Migration, a transition to a big city venue complete with sexy dancing women, and the central conflict between a jealous singer and her rogue horn player.
The band, minus Levee, arrives first at the recording studio, greeted by Ma’s manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and studio owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), both of whom plot how to deal with their star’s eminent demands. When Levee shows up, he has a new pair of shoes and a hotshot attitude hellbent on doing things his way. The band wants to rehearse the title song, but Levee insists on reworking the arrangement, which Cutler makes clear won’t sit well with Ma.
Running an hour late, Ma defiantly exits her hotel lobby locking arms with Dussie Mae and her young nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) beside her, enduring the disapproving looks of the other guests. The memorable way Ma slips on her hat and glares back at them tells you so much about this queer Black woman who asserted herself at a time when such things could get you jailed or worse.
Her commanding behavior continues upon arrival at the studio with her demands for a fan, a bottle of Coke, and more. Although we remain in this setting for the remainder of the film, Wolfe and his cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler, along with richly detailed costuming by Ann Roth, propulsive editing by Andrew Mondshein, and lived-in production design by Mark Ricker, prevent this drama from feeling stagebound. With precise camera movement and interesting framing, it’s a film rich with memorable visuals. Witness the scene in which Cutler tells a story of racial violence with him framed left in the background and Levee framed right in the foreground as he listens. This film, along with Regina King’s terrific One Night In Miami, are two films in 2020 which beautifully demonstrate the art of making confined spaces feel cinematic.
Wilson gives us the temperamental diva but smartly delves deep into her motivations. Ma wisely knows her worth and comes on strong to protect her dignity and her art. Moments of her giving affection to Dussie Mae, gifting her stuttering nephew with a special role in the recording, and discussing her love of the Blues with Cutler in a magnificent scene, go a long way toward making us truly understand this brave pioneer. Look no further than the way this great actor delivers her line, “This would be an empty world without the blues,” to convince you of her love of music.
If only she had a similar conversation with Levee, so much pain could have been avoided. But the film, while covering such issues as systemic racism, cultural appropriation, and music as a savior also explores ego and hubris, something both Ma and Levee have in abundance. With neither character willing to bow down to the other, conflict seems inevitable. Levee aspires to call his own shots and relies on Sturdyvant’s promise to record some of his songs. With bigger fish to fry, Levee has no time for being put in a corner by Ma and her band.
Levee, like Ma, however, has good reasons for much of his behavior, which comes out in a powerful monologue detailing a traumatic incident involving his father. It informs his entire nihilistic world view of not trusting God. Knowing that Boseman passed shortly after completing this film adds more pathos to line readings like, “Now, death? Death got some style. Death will kick your ass and make you wish you never been born. That’s how bad death is. But you can rule over life. Life ain’t nothing.” It’s a dazzling moment in a performance of such charisma and rage. It’s impossible not to mourn Boseman’s loss while simultaneously sitting in awe of his bottomless talent.
Everyone in this cast has a chance to shine, with Domingo and Turman expertly navigating the tense relationships. Potts lends some much-needed humor to the proceedings and Paige shines as a perhaps bisexual woman who hasn’t quite figured out her place. Shamos and Coyne both find interesting ways to appear blind to their privilege and subtle racism. A pat on the shoulder, an attempted kiss, or sticking some bills in a man’s shirt pocket go a long way towards showing their implied superiority over their artists.
In adapting the play for the screen, Santiago-Hudson improves upon a stuck studio door by adding a rich pay-off. Same goes for the final scene, which may borrow from Dreamgirls, but has a soul-crushing impact nonetheless. Additionally, Davis gives you so much history in a glance, by the way she sucks her teeth with disdain, or nonverbally says “fuck you” by the way she gulps down a soda. Incapable of giving a bad performance, Davis makes Ma one of her most legendary.
For many, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom may feel like a play, but Wolfe embraces it instead of falsely opening it up, and gives Wilson’s fantastic words the power and punch they deserve. A final word about one of the film’s producers. Never mind his two Oscar wins, if there’s one lasting legacy to Denzel Washington’s career, it will be his commitment to bringing August Wilson’s Century Cycle plays to the screen, with this being the second after Fences. Washington also deserves praise for giving us Viola Davis in peak power and for providing a vehicle for the late Chadwick Boseman’s greatest and, sadly, last performance.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is currently streaming on Netflix.