The transition from stage to screen is one in which many films fail to successfully make. With a film you have cuts, multiple angles, and as many takes as you want. The beauty of the theater is everything happening at once before your very eyes, with an entirely different language to capture and keep the attention of an audience. Thus, stories written for the stage must speak that specific language. The translation to cinema for an adaptation requires one part complete respect for the medium and the other complete reinvention in order to ensure the audience feels as if they are watching an honest to god film and not just a proshoot. George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, adapted from the play of the same name by August Wilson, has not only this challenge, but innumerable others, as an onscreen portrayal of the real life legend Ma Rainey, and of course a final cinematic performance from the late, great Chadwick Boseman.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tells its story of rising tensions during a recording session in the 1920s in only a few settings, similar to that of a stage play, and while this is not unusual (see Denzel Washington’s beautiful Fences) what is particularly remarkable about this is the film’s incredible simultaneous grasp on cinematic and theater language. A single frame bursts with energy and the various cast all add their own distinct touch to the story being told, all while the camera dynamically moves throughout them and pans in and out as it sees fit. The energy ramps up during its excellent musical sequences, but it also never quite lets up even during dramatic scenes, in which it’s made clear that the two go hand-in-hand. The music in Ma Rainey serves as a sheer expression of feeling.
Viola Davis absolutely disappears into the role of Ma Rainey, capturing the Mother of the Blues’ passionate performance as well as the immense burden of having one’s art valued, but not their personhood. The film builds upon this theme throughout its runtime, expertly utilizing its brilliant cast to convey that theme, among others. Perhaps the most captivating of these performances belongs to Chadwick Boseman, an actor who was always great, but reaches entirely new heights here.
As an aspiring bigtime musician, mocked for his efforts and reaching the end of his patience, it is a performance that shows everything about why we loved Chadwick Boseman so much and his unique charisma that could veer from playful and energized to deeply somber and world weary. It’s hard to watch the film knowing the struggles he faced while filming it and even more so given his character’s meditations on life and death. It is a truly unforgettable performance that left me more sure than ever that Chadwick, even with his repertoire of great performances, was far from done.
What makes this film so important beyond the beautiful performances and electric craft is the specificity in which it deals in thematically. This is a film not only composed of black talent, but about black talent and the ways in which America not only undervalued it in the 1920s, but right here and now too. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom highlights a different kind of white violence, which is the enjoyment of black culture by white people who gave no respect or credit to those who made it and oftentimes stole that very art and tried to pass it off as their own. It is a film about why not only the excellence of black artists and their art must be recognized, respected and celebrated, but their lives too.