“Can’t tell a fool nothin’.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom gives us so much to reconcile, to consider, to wrestle with. The co-leading duo of quite literal masterful performances both sport sharp fangs, and the entire endeavor is aided by one of 2020’s best ensembles, so emblematically and deeply personified through this often painful Blues fueled production. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a charged and volatile depiction of the black experience, and while wholly tremendous, never quite feels like a film either. This is stage adapted for the screen, and it’s easily the year’s best example of such work. But it still simply lacks the artistry of great cinema, which is unsurprisingly also found in the honest improvisation of Jazz. The actors in this vehicle work better than the bumpy ride ever does on its own.
There’s a danger to the open of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Fleet footed black men run through backwoods, and given the look of things, most audiences would assume they are sprinting from someone. Dogs bark as the men pant. We assume the worst until they arrive. It’s 1927, practically halfway between the Emancipation Proclamation and the forthcoming Civil Rights Act, and a crowd has gathered to hear the legendary Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) sing her guttural, culturally specific modern hymns under a semi big top in the middle of nowhere (for the attendees, it’s more a secretive know-where). The opening of the film is inspired, unlike most of this kind, and there’s artistic freedom on display. That only lasts briefly, though. There must be time for forced dialogue in confined settings, flat exposition, and supremely emotional speeches which cease to exist the second they’re over; the best come from the embattled trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman), determined enough to have his rabid and dogged voice heard by the masses no matter the cost. This picture has amazing lyrics; it’s the beat and the tone that are forgettable.
Unlike the graceful and deftly interwoven pieces of One Night in Miami – a similarly minded film about the pressures of black excellence both mined and eroded by the powers that be – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s script feels increasingly limited the farther along the story goes. I’d argue that was intentional on the part of George C. Wolfe’s depiction of August Wilson’s play, especially because the exploitation and appropriation of the black artist is still so prevalent to this day, but Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s script rarely adapts the play beyond a set of wordy and unprovoked monologues. The film is barely 90 minutes long, and I wonder if a broader writing team might have been able to develop it into a more character driven, specific, compelling story. Much like the sequence with a young stutterer, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom works best when it’s loud and clear. Unfortunately it requires 10 takes to get there. That’s wasted time for a movie this surprisingly short.
I’ve appreciated adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ plays, mostly because they’re so character driven. For some reason though, similar to 2016’s Fences, this latest reinvention of August Wilson’s writing never leaps off the page even when it quite literally screams on the screen. I still think the model for stage to screen is Daniel Petrie’s 1961 drama A Raisin in the Sun, who masterfully brought Lorraine Hansberry’s play to life by focusing on the people instead of the environment. A lot can be conveyed in a tiny apartment when the writing is in the people and not on the walls. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom shows flourishes and fireworks, especially given the astonishingly humbled yet entirely braggadocios performances from Davis and the late Bosman, and yet it goes nowhere, while also sporting some horrendous editing when the story briefly dips out of the recording studio.
With one of the year’s most poignant and infuriating endings, showing how black power was pilfered and purged of any identity by folks who care more about a few bucks than real artistry, the picture sends a decisive message about how important it is for the journey to be conveyed by the proper messenger. We see that white folks falsely claim black art as their own, that such actions perpetuate black on black violence, and that the cycle continues to this day. More time and more depth might’ve made this one a more worthy Best Picture nominee (which I’m sure it’s destined to get yet I’d argue doesn’t earn). Nevertheless, it’s is a necessary depiction of the strong voices who refuse to be muted no matter their color or the ultimate cost, via violence or probable censure. There’s a great movie inside here. As is, I’ll settle for a very good one.
“All they want is my voice.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5