Producers: Denzel Washington. Todd Black and Dany Wolf Director: George C. Wolfe Screenplay: Ruben Santiago-Hudson Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown, Joshua Harto and Quinn VanAntwerp Distributor: Netflix
If Denzel Washington does nothing more with the clout his stardom has brought than accomplish his goal of bringing August Wilson’s magisterial Pittsburgh Cycle of plays to the screen, he can consider all the work he’s put into his career well worth it.
The stage works, also called the Century Cycle because they chronicle a hundred years of black experience in America decade by decade, have rightly become a touchstone of modern drama, and after directing and starring in the first installment in the project, the superb 2016 screen version of “Fences,” the play written third and set in the 1950s, Washington has turned over the directorial duties for this, the second play written and set in 1927, to George C. Wolfe, who worked with Ruben Santiago-Hudson to adapt it for the screen. This version changes the original it some ways, excising some of the text, adding a few scenes to relieve the staginess or visualize matters that were relegated to dialogue, and the like. But it remains true to the work’s theatrical underpinnings—and thankfully, to Wilson’s luminous use of language and extraordinary gift for dramatic power and potent characterization.
The narrative centers on a single day, set here during the summer heat, when Ma Rainey, a historical figure known as the Mother of the Blues, came to a Chicago recording studio with her backup band to lay down tracks for white label owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), who warns her agent Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) to keep his imperious client in line.
Ma is late in arriving with her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), of course, and when she does show up Irvin will have to bribe a cop to forget a fender-bender her car is involved in. But she’s preceded by her quartet. Three are old-timers, trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman). The fourth is young cornetist Levee (Chadwick Boseman), whose arrogance and ambition lead to clashes with the others, especially Toledo.
Meanwhile Ma’s demands put Sturdyvant on edge and send Irvin scurrying to save the sessions. Especially taxing is her insistence on using her usual rendition of the title song rather than Levee’s new, more upbeat arrangement, which Sturdyvant had promised the young man would be recorded—as well as her ultimatum that Sylvester deliver the spoken introduction to the song, although he stutters.
The central theme of the play, and the film, is the exploitation of black artists by whites. Ma, the wily old veteran, understands how the system works, which is why she acts as she does, getting as much as she can in terms of money and respect until the gig is over and she’s once again tossed aside. Levee doesn’t: he believes Sturdyvant’s promise that he’ll buy the songs he’s written and record the new band he plans on forming, only to suffer inevitable disappointment that exacerbates his rage over the way he’s been treated since childhood—rage that spills over in his conflict with the other band members, especially Toledo. He might remind you of Walter Lee Younger, from “A Raisin in the Sun”—another young black man devastated when his hopes of advancement are dashed, as they usually are. (Sidney Poitier originated that role on stage and film, but Washington took to the boards for the 2014 Broadway revival.)
The film is beautifully made from a technical standpoint. Mark Ricker’s production design is superb, and special praise must be given to Ann Roth’s costumes, which are exquisite across the board and especially remarkable when it comes to Ma’s elaborate frocks. The visuals are captured in burnished tones by the cinematography of Tobias Schliessler, who has collaborated with Wolfe and editor Andrew Mondshein to vary the close-ups and ensemble shots to minimize the feeling of staginess. Of course, music plays an important part, and it’s in the capable hands of Bradford Marsalis.
Still, the essential factor in bringing Wilson’s language to life lies in the acting, and here this production is outstanding. The supporting players are all excellent, with a particularly strong contribution from Turman as crotchety, garrulous Toledo, whose exchanges with Levee are explosive.
But “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” triumphs in the performances of Davis and Boseman, both of whom deliver powerhouse turns. Davis makes an amazing Ma Rainey, from her voice, appearance and carriage to her wide spectrum of emotion. Her default attitude may be one of calculated bravado, but beneath the surface is the recognition of the real attitude that ostensibly subservient whites have toward her, and there are moments when her confidence slips and she seems resigned to the fact that her career is in decline while other performers are in the ascendant. Davis creates an indelible impression in this multifaceted role.
Still, the film will probably be best remembered as enshrining the final performance of Chadwick Boseman, a fine young actor lost to us far too soon. Though he looks gaunt and drawn as a result of the illness from which he was quietly suffering, his energy never flags, and he delivers Levee’s tirades with a passionate intensity that rivals anything he’d ever done on screen. Yet as with Davis’ Ma Rainey, he makes palpable the sense of humiliation and outrage Levee feels when he is dealt with shabbily by those with power over him. He also carries off the character’s verbal tussles with Toledo, including the apparently minor one over a pair of shoes that leads to a frighteningly abrupt tragedy. Boseman is mesmerizing, and his swan song as an actor will not soon be forgotten.
Of course, all of the actors, including Davis and Boseman, are fortunate to have August Wilson’s words to feast upon. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a brilliant and insightful piece of theatre, and this splendid screen adaptation is worthy of it in every respect.