Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
In the last 100 years, film has become a mainstream source of entertainment, but stories told through a mix of performance, direction and writing long predates the 20th century. Cinema is the modern evolution of theatre. Audiences had been flocking to the stage long before they were going to the movies. Therefore, it’s only natural that stage plays found their way to the big screen. Film and theatre are two very different mediums, so filmmakers have to appropriately translate stage material when adapting it for cinema. A dialogue heavy play will usually be adapted with some visual flair, whereas a huge spectacle will usually have quieter moments added in. Some adaptations trust in the viewers stage literacy, as is the case with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020).
Set in a Chicago recording studio circa 1927, we are introduced to Blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her backing band members Levee (Chadwick Boseman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Toledo (Glynn Turman). The label is keen to record all of Ma’s greatest hits, including her popular rendition of The Black Bottom Dance. While the executives deal with Ma Rainey’s many demands, the band members argue over issues of artistic ownership, commercial exploitation, race violence and religion. Specifically, Levee is at odds with all of his colleagues, as he believes his personal version of Black Bottom is artistically superior to what they’ve been ordered to play. Not only that, but Levee has eyes on his own success, as he wants to break away and form his own band.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was originally part of Producer Denzel Washington’s 10-picture deal which included his Oscar Winning drama, Fences (2016). Just like that earlier film, Black Bottom resists the urge to fluff up the drama with overly cinematic set pieces, instead relying on dialogue heavy exchanges. Just like a stage performance, every line has clearly been meticulously rehearsed, ensuring there’s authenticity to the delivery. Additionally, attention has been paid to the emotional context of these back-and-forths, meaning that every moment is dripping in layers of subtle complexity. However, It’s not all going to land on the first watch, as some of it comes out so fast that it causes the nuance slip through the cracks.
It’s not without its visual flourishes, as there’s a handful of great moments with narratively purposeful cinematography and directing choices. If you pay enough attention to the rapid fire conversational dialogue, you’ll recognise how the the camerawork and cuts are motivated to complement the narrative themes. Director George C. Wolfe and Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler know when to show you small yet important details, but they also know when to hold back (which is equally important). Either way, their deliberate choices of when (and how) to show the audience things always creates meaning. Granted, none of the visual symbolism is particularly revolutionary or mind-blowing, but it does still generate the appropriate emotional response from the viewer.
With that in mind, it’s impressive to see how much thematic ground the film manages to cover. There are many ways to view the story, and most of them are all fleshed out in a satisfying manner. As a film about artists, it’s a compelling analysis of how their work directly correlates to their happiness and self-respect. As a film about the entertainment business, it’s a fascinating look at the unacknowledged working class existence of creative people. Things get heavy when the story unpacks its ideas on religion and race. Sure, many prestigious dramas cover these topics, but few have the guts to examine the systemic problems which tie these issues together. Specifically, the film asks the difficult question of whether or not the concept of faith holds any meaning for those who are painfully discriminated against.
There’s certainly a lot of ground to cover, which is a shame when you consider the film’s short runtime. While it never feels like it’s bursting at the seams, a bit more room to breathe would’ve gone a long way. Sure, there’s only so much you can do when the whole story takes place in a recording studio, but a bit more creative licence with the source material may have solved that issue. The compressed runtime means the act structure needed to be a little amended in order to make it all work. Namely, the first and second acts take up most of the action, only to then pack the third act and resolution into the last few minutes. It’s all functional and successfully gets to the emotional end point, but some audience may feel like the film ends just as it starts to get interesting.
Happily, the stellar performances of Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis nicely smooth over the major structural defects. Just like an actual stage play, it’s these headline performances we’re here to see. Viola Davis is a standout in nearly every film she’s ever been in and that’s no exception here. She’s a true chameleon who is practically unrecognisable from role to role. Davis is matched by Boseman, a true talent who steals every single frame. His fantastic work in 42 (2013), Get On Up (2014), Marshall (2017), Black Panther (2018) and Da Five Bloods (2020) have all led to his performance as Levee, as he shows us a wealth of believably real humour, charm, rage, heart and sorrow in this one role. Boseman’s passing is only more heartbreaking when looking at his work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, as it’s clear he had so many inspiring performances left to give.
Not every stage play is going to perfectly translate to the screen. Sure, films like Amadeus (1984) and Hamlet (1996) proved the genre can deliver unqualified masterpieces, but those results are few and far between. Despite its minor flaws, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a worthy entry with strong performances and complicated characters. The stage to screen presentation may be a little dry for some, but it’s still a mostly rewarding experience.
Best way to watch it: With a good scotch.