Ma Rainey’s gold teeth glitter when the spotlight shines on them. The blues singer opens her mouth to entertain an audience and to show off her bite. In the film adaptation of August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Rainey’s smile signals a warning: “Don’t fuck with me.” Directed by George C. Wolfe, the movie adheres to the arc of Wilson’s script and faithfully retains his language. But the screenwriter, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, also tries to open up, or break down, the theatrical walls the playwright put in place.
Wolfe’s opening scene finds Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) on stage in 1927 performing “Deep Moaning Blues” with her band. Rainey is clearly the star attraction that night, but her trumpet player Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman) improvises a solo that looks to her like grandstanding. This bit of backstory isn’t how the play begins. Rainey is a more elusive figure, the object of everyone’s anticipation. The characters spend half of the play waiting for her, a Godot who actually shows up. The film essentially changes Wilson’s orchestration. Instead of an ensemble piece, we’re watching a duet, a battle of wills between Ma Rainey and Levee.
Neither Wilson’s play nor Wolfe’s movie is intended to be a sweeping biopic of Ma Rainey’s life. It’s set on a single day at a recording studio. Davis does as much as she possibly can to show us who this woman is, but she’s a supporting character in the play. Because of that initial conception, we catch glimpses of her life in the movie without getting much context. When Rainey eventually arrives at the studio, she’s accompanied by her lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and by her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). We don’t find out if Dussie Mae is a fling or a lasting affair or why she’s taken Sylvester under her wing.
After her Oscar-winning performance as Rose in the adaptation of Wilson’s Fences (2016), it’s easy to see why Davis would want to perform another one of his fictional creations. Earlier this year in a Vanity Fair interview, Davis explained why she’s drawn to his work. “He writes for us. I love August, because he lets [Black characters] talk. A lot of times I don’t get to talk. And then sometimes even when I do talk, I’m like, that’s not what I would say.”
Ma Rainey, though, is an atypical film role for her. Davis has made a lasting impression on screen — excluding the television series How to Get Away with Murder — as the embodiment of someone decent, ethical, and good. That’s not to say that the characters she’s played don’t have moral conflicts. It’s just that you trust her persona and believe in the weight of her characters’ words and motivations.
As an entertainer, Ma Rainey’s in town to do her job. Whether she’s good or bad is irrelevant. She’s a Black performer recording music for white producers. They’re making money off of her voice, her sweat, her emotions. This gives Rainey the right to exert power over everyone at the studio, whether they’re white or Black. We watch her and wait to see what she does with that power.
Unlike his fellow musicians, Levee wants to do more than just play the notes of any given song. He wants to express himself as an artist. He’s come up with a new arrangement for the upcoming session but Rainey isn’t interested. She’s made her reputation with a signature style and sound. It feels like an unnecessary risk to depart from it. The play also implies that white America only makes room for a few Black stars at a time. If Rainey opens the door for Levee’s music, his arrival could mark the end of her career.
Boseman’s performance equals Davis’ in Fences. The actor brings out Levee’s troubled inner life to display his wounds. But he also has the benefit of Wilson’s full attention. Davis was nominated as a supporting actress as Rose but she was as much of a leading character, with as much to say and do and think and feel, as Denzel Washington’s Troy. Even though the title is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Levee’s dilemma, as recounted in his monologues, is the dramatic center of the film. Davis is convincing in the part, but Ma Rainey isn’t fleshed out the way that Levee is.
You can feel the director pushing against the constraints of Wilson’s original setting, inside a studio on a sweltering summer afternoon. Wolfe’s smartest instincts are to emphasize the musical numbers and to cover the same ground about the racist, avaricious recording industry that Dreamgirls (2006) does. But if it weren’t for Boseman’s fragile Levee and an indomitable Davis as his counterpoint, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom might have landed dryly, as a dutiful filmed version of the play.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix.