Continuing my awards season viewing with this fantastic stage to screen adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows the titular Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), a blues singer and her band as they spend the day recording a new song in a studio in Chicago. Directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a masterclass in acting performance, particularly by Viola Davis as the vivacious Ma and Chadwick Boseman is astonishing as band trumpeter, Levee.
The film is produced by Daniel Washington as part of a 10 film deal and follows 2016’s Fences. Washington directed Fences and decided to keep the original play script by Wilson as the film shooting script. This caused some restrictions as film and stage are naturally so different that the transition between the two is not always seamless. Sometimes the dialogue between characters can carry too much exposition onscreen which can make a film feel clunky. What Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom successful is Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation of the script to lift it from stage to screen. What Santiago-Hudson does is elevate the dialogue so it has more flow and rhythm for the film’s fast pace without compromising the integrity of Wilson’s original script. He also keeps it as restricted as possible in terms of location meaning that it is an extremely loyal adaptation. This is how plays are meant to be adapted from stage to screen.
To say Viola Davis’ performance is transformative would be a huge understatement. She becomes Ma in such a way that you really forget that it is Davis beneath the character. I have written on Davis’ top performances in the past (which you can read here) and her performance as Ma would easily sit among them. From the moment she commands the screen belting out numbers to large crowds, it’s clear that Ma is a force of nature. A character who knows her worth and knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to express this. It’s easy to see what drew Davis to the role and she fits it so perfectly. As a black woman, so many people, particularly her white manager, try to dictate the creative choices and tell her what sells but Ma knows her fans the most and will know what they want.
Also being campaigned for lead is the late Chadwick Boseman as rebellious trumpeter Levee. Sadly losing his fight against cancer earlier this year, Boseman leaves behind a legacy that has resonated with so many fans around the globe. Rounding off his professional career posthumously have been Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (you can read my review here) and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Whereas the former will likely see him nominated for a Supporting Actor gong, it is this lead performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that could secure him a well-deserved win. Levee is a dreamer who wants nothing more than to write songs and perform his own way. His strong personality clashes greatly with Ma who constantly puts him down. Like his character, Boseman never misses a beat and remains upbeat and charismatic throughout. Captivating the screen with his strength, this performance is definitely among the best of the year. This performance is definitely one to beat in the Oscars race next year for sure and it’s heartbreaking that Boseman isn’t here to see the legacy that he has left behind. A true icon who was showcasing a huge range.
Overall, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom did not disappoint and will undoubtedly provide a slew of Oscar nominations and hopefully wins, particularly for Boseman. A beautiful swansong to sing out his legacy in a performance that is so captivating and demands to be watched and then watched again to really get under the layers. Where Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom really succeeds is showing the struggle of black women in a society that dictates how they should be. Ma is constantly told how she should act and what she should sing. Not only does this show degradation of her as a character but also the African-American culture as a whole. The final scene in which an all white band perform one of Levee’s songs only supports this.
What did you think of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? Let me know in the comments below!
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available to watch now on Netflix.