In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” introductions matter. Whether or not audiences know the real Ma Rainey’s reputation as “mother of the blues,” August Wilson ensures that this musical pioneer is a larger-than-life character even before she steps foot onstage. And because Netflix’s socko feature adaptation marks the final role of “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, whose death in August caught the film world by surprise, exits assume a stirring poignancy as well.
But let’s begin at the beginning.
The year is 1927, and Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) has been booked to record a few of her best-known songs, including the title number — all hits on the minstrel show circuit — at a studio on the South Side of Chicago. Two white men, her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and album producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), fret about whether she will show up on time — or at all — which is enough for viewers to conclude that Ma Rainey’s some kind of prima donna. Her hand-picked “Georgia Band,” including hotshot horn player Levee (Boseman), arrives well before Ma, rehearsing downstairs while they wait for the boss lady to make her big entrance. And so she does.
In a departure from the play, director George C. Wolfe (“Lackawanna Blues”) opens his film with the briefest tease of Ma Rainey’s supernova appeal, doing her thing deep in the woods for a rural Black audience. That glimpse gives us a sense of the star in her element. But her first proper scene is the one Wilson wrote, and it finds the singer surrounded by angry white faces: Ma Rainey is shouting at a police officer. Her driver got to the studio late, causing an accident in the process, and now the authorities are threatening to take her down to the station.
Davis, who won an Oscar as the tough-love wife in Wilson’s “Fences,” looks virtually unrecognizable as Ma Rainey, with her smeared panda-eye makeup, tired-flapper wig and downturned “I dare you” expression. The actor has transformed her silhouette, her stance and her attitude into something defiant, a queen mother before whom others must grovel. That’s because Davis’ greatest asset — a conviction in herself that’s the backbone and soul of this character — shines through, making it clear that Ma Rainey is not a woman to be pushed around.
Nearly every second of Davis’ performance is about power, about who has the upper hand over whom and what it means for a person — much less a people — to be in a subordinate position. Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s dutiful adaptation spells out some of that subtext, but audiences’ sensitivity will vary according to their life experience.
The first entry in Wilson’s landmark Pittsburgh Cycle — 10 plays about the Black experience in the 20th century, one per decade — “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” recasts the Jazz Age from an African American point of view. White characters are relatively rare in Wilson’s work, and here, Irvin, Sturdyvant and that cop represent a system that exploits Black culture. Over the course of a single sweltering day in a recording studio, we witness triumph and defeat, buoyed by the blues — an art form informed by oppression, and now one of connection. But Wilson does not write happy plays, and this one ends on a note that sounds like the weary sigh on a sad trombone.
“They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they want is my voice,” Ma Rainey says by way of explanation, after refusing to sing until Irvin makes good on his promise to deliver a cold bottle of Coca-Cola. Suddenly, what seemed like diva behavior until now takes on new perspective. Ma Rainey recognizes just how little respect an openly bisexual, unapologetically Black woman like herself is typically afforded in 1920s Chicago, and she’s leveraging what she has — her talent — to set the terms.
But Ma Rainey’s not the only one with talent. Levee (that would be Boseman) has written a few songs of his own, following Sturdyvant’s cues to “jazz it up” to suit his white customers. To these ears, they sound like an improvement, but at issue isn’t whose versions are better. Levee’s bandmates — Culter (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) — question what his eagerness to accommodate his gatekeepers says about his values.
Ma Rainey understands that as soon as Sturdyvant has his record, he can drop the civility and cut her out of the picture. She fights to be true to her roots, to give voice to her people (which she quite literally does in asking her stuttering nephew to introduce the title song), whereas Levee sees no problem in assimilation. But if Wilson is critical of this impulse, he complicates it by showing that Levee is no traditional Uncle Tom: Early on, while audiences are still trying to figure out his character, Levee describes an incident he witnessed at 8 years old that left him scarred in every respect.
Wilson writes characters who reveal themselves in layers, and though the movie gives Levee a cinematic introduction of his own, each scene adds complexity. Boseman strides into the film, lean and restless, unsettled. The confidence and composure of the icons he has played before — Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, T’Challa — has melted away into a kind of nervous insecurity we’ve never seen in the actor. Levee is hungry, horny; he has much to prove. It’s there in the way he flirts with every pretty young thing — including “Ma’s girl,” Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) — and it’s there in the way he blows a week’s wages on a pair of new shoes.
Levee prowls the dank room where the band rehearses, preoccupied by a heavy, rusted door on the back wall that becomes a clear symbol for his ambitions: Is it a shortcut or a dead end? The history of modern American music is paved with the appropriation and outright theft of Black culture. That tradition continues today, tracing back at least as far as the moment that Wilson, inspired by the blues, has imagined here.
The playwright conceived Levee as a tragic figure, and real life doubled down. Mighty as Davis’ performance may be, this is Boseman’s movie: Ma Rainey’s name is right there in the title, but Levee’s trying to hijack her show at every turn, so it makes sense that our eyes should be on him as he starts to implode — a star collapsing, leaving it all on the screen. How fortunate that Boseman’s legacy should include this film, an homage to Black art that’s tough enough to confront the costs of making it.