Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues”. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play.
When the late playwright August Wilson handed over the rights of his back catalogue of plays about the African American experience to Denzel Washington, it led to ‘Fences’, the first play to be adapted, garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Picture alongside a Best Supporting Actress award for Viola Davis. The second play to be adapted is attempting to follow in ‘Fences’ footsteps and it also has a big Viola Davis performance at the centre of it. ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ takes place over the course of an afternoon in 1920s Chicago, focusing on the rising tensions between a band of musicians and their management as they gather for a recording session on a hot summer’s day. Legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Davis) is the star attraction and is locked in a battle with her white manager for control of her music, whilst the remainder of her band discuss a variety of topics including their futures and their place as black men in a white man’s world.
The material here is good and the performances are excellent, but much like ‘Fences’, this is very much a film that struggles to shake off it’s theatrical roots, and what works extremely well on the stage doesn’t always work as well on screen. Chadwick Boseman, in his last ever performance before his untimely death earlier this year, serves a final reminder of his wonderful talent and his character Levee is the most interesting of the ensemble. The most interesting aspect of the narrative is the battle for control of Ma’s music, and the film deftly explores how the white producers are exploiting black talent and how they want to dictate the type of music the performers make. Ma has a presence and a profile that gives her some weight in these discussions, but the other performers don’t and much of the debates in the film flow from that lack of control.
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a worthwhile watch with Chadwick Boseman particularly excellent, but it never fully embraces the medium of cinema and I felt it was like watching a filmed version of a good stage play.
Directed By: George C. Wolfe
Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Jeremy Shamos, Jonny Coyne and Taylour Paige