Make two scorching appearances – by Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman Ma Rainey’s black bottom more than just a faithful adaptation of a great play. Davis captures the matter-of-fact anger of blues singer Ma Rainey, who is willing to play two numbers for her white agent / producer – but not before expressing her anger over feeling exploited. All of this comes down to us as their band members try to compete with a trumpeter named Levee, who has his own ideas on how to perform one of Ma’s signature pieces. He’s also dreaming big about his emerging career without realizing how easy it is for a white record producer to feel like dime.
Spending an hour and a half in the company of such aggressively anti-social characters isn’t pleasant, but comfort isn’t what the playwright August Wilson had in mind. When he died in 2005, he left ten pieces known collectively as The Pittsburgh cycle, which offer realistic portraits of black lives in 20th Century America, with increased language and difficult situations to make their points. Its importance is undisputed and its relevance makes the gifted author appear positively foresighted.
It is impossible to turn these masterpieces into films without acknowledging their stage origins. Wilson’s characters are made to talk, whether they’re in the solo spotlight or verbally fighting each other. Director George C. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson do not “open” the play arbitrarily, which is intentionally claustrophobic. The confrontations seem to bloom in the stifled atmosphere of a soulless recording studio and a shabby rehearsal room in the basement. (Kudos to Mark Rickers’ impressive production design that sets the timeframe for the 1920s.)
Viola Davis cannot perform improperly. We’ve never seen her tackle a role like Ma Rainey, a real-life character known as the “mother of the blues”. Under a layer of sweat and liquid make-up, she transforms into a performer of fire and brimstone who will give her white masters what they want, but not without extracting a pound of meat – and a few Coca-Colas.
Chadwick Boseman brings it together with his searing portrayal of a young hotshot who has not yet delved into the realities of success in a white man’s world. Compromise is a foreign word for him, and we watch helplessly as he gives in to a vortex of extreme emotions.
The other musicians are played by Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and Glynn Turman (who has been so good this season of Fargo). Ma Rainey’s black bottom Preserves one of August Wilson’s enduring works for all time, staged by a dream cast.