Today’s mystery; how can Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom have not one but two of the year’s best leading performances, but NOT be one of the best pictures? Those who study the Kremlinology of the Oscars voting system may well want to ponder this question; Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis have been acclaimed by awards bodies, but somehow there’s a lack of love for the final product. The punch-line is that while George C Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play is a respectful, vibrant work, it also feels like filmed theatre rather than cinema, and there is a difference.
Like producer Denzel Washington’s previous entry, Fences, there’s a history lesson involved; this time, we’re headed back to 1920’s Chicago where Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is heading into the recording studio. In theatrical style, there’s quite a wait until we see Ma giving it both barrels on the mic; first of all we have to see her band assemble, with trumpeter Levee Green (Boseman) more than willing to shake up the dynamic. Ma needs an ice-cold coke to sing, and when her soft drink of choice isn’t ready, she refuses to perform. A number of other obstacles appear, from Ma’s stuttering nephew to manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) who struggles to give the whole venture momentum. A pressure-cooker environment results, and Levee’s hopes and dreams make him an incendiary force in the tight, tense studio environment.
While deliberately slow to start, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom overcomes theatrical originals and eventually transcends them, largely due to two powerhouse leads, but also due to a uniformly strong support; the dialogue sings, and the characters are consistently entertaining to watch. But like Fences, this feels like a play put under glass for future generations to study; despite well-mounted bursts of activity outside the studio, Wolfe’s film still feels like being trapped in one over-crowded basement as tensions build, a dynamic that works both for and against the film. Levee’s ambition, mixed with rage against the same world he hopes will feed his desires, suggests in-built contradictions, but when they finally explode, the narrative is all but done bar a caustic coda.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom manages the difficult trick of making theatre watchable as a film; many have tried and failed, so Netflix deserve credit here. As cinema, it comes up slightly short; Boseman and Davis both fire up the energy levels with their solo turns, but the last few narrative notes are decidedly predictable, and lack the surprise that great cinema can create. Washington’s desire to elevate great theatre through film is laudable and worthwhile, but a slightly more radical take on this material might have brought more universal acclaim. Like Fences, like One Night in Miami, audiences are getting a black history lesson via theatre plays filmed, but the worrying fissures opening up right now in today’s overtly racist society remain un-addressed.
Thanks to Netflix for blu-ray screener access to this film.