By Andrea Thompson
Everyone knows the score in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and they’re all grappling with it in their own way one night in Chicago in 1927 when the Mother of the Blues herself, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), gets together with her band for a recording session. Tensions are high, and there will be a fallout, but this is an August Wilson adaptation, so things won’t be as simple as they initially appear.
Take the film’s brilliant opening, which sees a few young Black men running through the woods, the sounds of barking dogs on their heels. A moment of trauma seems to be upon us, but these men are running towards joy, and our introduction to Ma Rainey, who is performing for an appreciative audience before she leaves the rural South for an urban north she finds far less hospitable. Ma Rainey openly sneers at the Black middle class bent on respectability, but it’s the white music executives who she’s well aware would relish chewing her up and spitting her out who will get the worst of it, much to our glee.
Viola Davis once again gives Meryl Streep a lesson or two about channeling a character that could match even Davis in terms of formidability. Davis had a connection to Wilson through her Tony-nominated performances in “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley” on Broadway before she effortlessly held her own opposite Denzel Washington in 2016 in “Fences,” and she’s no less awe-inspiring here in a role that’s about as far away from Rose Maxson as you can get, while Washington likewise stays on, albeit in a behind-the-scenes capacity as a producer.
Just don’t expect much more about her, because Ma Rainey isn’t so much the center of the film as its heart. The film’s real star is the far too soon departed and very much missed Chadwick Boseman, who brings an energy that’s as terrifyingly raw as it is heartbreaking in his final role as ambitious horn player Levee. Levee longs to lead his own band and create his own music, the kind that’s more in tune with the urban audience he identifies with, but he’s also metaphorically and physically scarred from the racial violence he and his parents suffered from when he was a child, and his interactions with white producers are deeply triggering, threatening to destroy not only his dreams but his future.
Anyone expecting to learn more about Ma Rainey’s life and times will be disappointed, but Boseman is electrifying as the pivot upon which the film turns. The other band members joke, laugh, philosophize, and are spurned to violence depending on Levee’s mercurial mood, and director George C. Wolfe doesn’t just capture the vast range of emotions that flit over every face, but their physicality as he mostly succeeds in ensuring that “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” flowers on-screen in a way “Fences” did not.
But if Ma Rainey remains somewhat obscure, her girlfriend is done even fewer favors, coming off as little more than another gold digger. Taylour Paige should be more familiar to audiences as the title character in the Sundance hit “Zola” in what should have been her breakthrough, but 2020 robbed her and us of the experience. Her talent means she makes the most of what she has to work with, but the material doesn’t give her much in the way of opportunities to really show us what she’s capable of.
Could it have been less about the men? Oh yes. But these men and the few women around them are more than worth the time as they grapple with the strictured nature of their lives. Ma Rainey may have been somewhat of an exception to the rule, a woman who was able to carve out a life and exert an incredible amount of power that allowed her to push back against those who would exploit her and leave her in the dust. But this is no uplifting tale meant to reassure us of a better world. It’s an ode to a woman and her music, which spoke for those who were mostly robbed of a voice and so much more.