Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Directed by: George C. Wolfe Runtime: 1hr 34 min Rated: R Studio: Netflix
Screenwriter: Ruben Santiago-Hudson Based on: August Wilson’s play
Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts
The play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson transitions to film through screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson and stage director/playwright George C. Wolfe.
While the music, locations, and clothes of the late 1920s transition well to screen, and why wouldn’t it, the plot to record a record in a sweltering recording studio one afternoon does not. It’s a pretext; this film is all about the characters. Every movie needs characters, true and well-developed ones, to engage a viewer’s interest. This project as a film fails at that miserably.
Ma Rainey was a real-life woman that August Wilson based a 1982 play on. Ma became known as the “mother of blues” for her contributions and shaping of blues music during the early 1900s. Her sound and notable stage performance style made her the first known blues artist. For a woman during that time and a black woman, that was an accomplishment. Especially when the world had more issues with both those labels. She made a name for herself, a brand, and had a following. How this film presents her, however, is unflattering.
It’s fair to wonder if this movie’s choice of focus, a day-in-the-life-of take on Ma Rainey, is an accurate representation of her character or just a bad day. I think this woman deserves a film that can flesh her out better and give a more rounded take on her life and music. A movie should not have the audience asking themselves if it’s accurate; it should show it.
The failure to show it is because Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson stick to August Wilson’s uses of speeches too heavily. They forego the needed camera movements with the acting to show, not tell what’s going on. Choosing close-up shots and framing the actors standing around or sitting like they are on stage waste a cinematographers’ talent. This is supposed to be a movie, not a play. The entire film is a slow drag (no pun intended) that makes the runtime feel twice as long as it actually is. It’s based on a play and feels like one.
At the recording studio, all the audience is subjected to is heavy exposition. Talking. Lots, and lots, of speaking. The band members stand around, trash-talking, occasionally playing music, swapping stories, and being verbally abusive with nothing else to move the story along. It leaves the impression that Ma Rainey isn’t the mother of anything. Historically that’s not true, but this project doesn’t do much for the real-life person who earned that title.
Viola Davis is an incredible actress with great depth and range. Still, the depiction of Ma Rainey makes me cringe as Ma comes off so unlikeable. Maybe she was in real life. I am left with the impression that Ma is always a bitch and learn little of consequence about her. Ma’s demeanor is understandable towards white people. Mainly because it’s useful to keep control and stay successful in a white, male-run world. Yet, she’s just as mean and snobby to the black people around her.
Chadwick Boseman was undoubtedly a talented actor as well. His character, Levee, grates at Ma’s nerve. Levee is young, ambitious, and loves music like Ma and dreams of having his own band, so he doesn’t have to play the same old music anymore. He’s arrogant and misogynistic. Ma and Levee are so similar it’s obvious why they don’t get along, and it makes me wonder how he ever ended up in her band in the first place.
Wilson’s use of monologuing is where the viewer gets any relevant information about the characters. While there is a lot of information and perspective to be gained from these moments about Levee, Ma, and the rest of the band, it’s not enough.
I enjoy a good play, and perhaps I would have gotten more out of this material if I had seen it as such. You can’t lose what you don’t have, and this film didn’t have cinematic structure story-telling. The interactions of the characters’ speeches alone are not enough; it makes the movie boring and does nothing for music or the blues in a memorable way.
Circling back to Levee’s character…as a devil’s advocate. Chadwick Boseman has been given so much praise for this role. He took on this project knowing he had cancer and didn’t tell anyone. Boseman certainly wasn’t the first actor/actress to work on a project with cancer or during treatments. So I’m conflicted as to if he has gotten this praise because it was a great job or because he died and his peers all loved him. That sounds terrible, I know. If an actor is saying lines that run parallel to their actual life, in an emotional state. Is it really acting, or is it life imitating art? If he hadn’t died, would the same praise be there?
This film touches on important topics, like cultural appropriation, intellectual property rights and theft, sexuality, and multi-layered race issues. These could have been shown on film rather than talked about. It would have enabled the story with much need pacing.
Still, the trailer for this film was the best thing about it. It implied more about blues or music than is actually experienced. Due to its lack of effective adaptation to film, I would not recommend this for your watch list.
—a pen lady