Viola Davis has never played a scene like the one between her Ma Rainey and girlfriend. Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Encircling Dussie in her arms, Ma sings “Those Dogs of Mine” in a moist bullfrog croak as hot as the perspiration agleam on their bodies. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has a few moments like this, compensating for the inevitable awkwardness of transferring August Wilson’s 1982 play, part of his decalogue Pittsburgh Cycle, to the screen. George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) loves actors, it’s clear. He loves the stage too. The affection for stage wobbles his film but not fatally. From Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey into Night to Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, directors have embraced stage conventions because when the material is so powerful who the hell cares about opening it up?
Symphonic in its devotion to the tonalities of Black American period lingo, Wilson’s play feels like the realization of what Eudora Welty had attempted in 1941’s “Powerhouse,” the closest an American short story has come to proving Walter Pater’s adage about how art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson triumph when they let the actors playing Ma’s band turn their chatter into melodic phrases. And what a cast: Colman Domingo as trombonist/guitarist Culer, Glynn Turman as Toledo the pianist, Michael Potts as the older and wearier bassist Slow Drag.
When Levee (Chadwick Boseman) joins them, his youth and improvisational ideas fascinate and infuriate the vets. A grinning, natural manipulator whose impeccably polished mustard-colored shoes, Levee can’t turn off the charm; it’s a way of keeping his pain at bay, true, but also he genuinely likes keeping it on. Yet has no patience for Rainey’s accommodationist habits. He doesn’t want to hear it when Toledo says, “The colored man ought to be doing more.” He can see through Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and this record exec’s trying to buy him off Levee’s songs in hopes of burying them. But he meet his match in Rainey, given a tenuous power in the white world because she entertains them and, goddamn it, she’s gonna keep it. “I don’t stand for no shit,” she says. “They going to treat me the way I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt ‘em.”
As terrific as he is coiled and smoldering in Black Panther and Da 5 Bloods, the late Chadwick Boseman is even better as a hellion. He gives a star’s performance in Ma Rainey’s (cameraman obias A. Schliesser lights him like one), and it’s clear when he behaves like a cad onscreen, for example stealing Dussie Mae from under Rainey’s nose; or when, in the play’s final act, he succumbs to a rage so powerful it overcomes his common sense. Playing with his vocal range as if he’d absorbed Levee’s trumpet rhythms, Boseman comes across as an impressive soloist in an expert ensemble.
At a gratifying ninety-two minutes, Ma Rainey‘s doesn’t have time to flag, though the briskness at times short-circuits some transitions, notably when the aforementioned act of violence occurs in the last ten minutes. Wolfe arranges actors like they were at the Belasco; Taylor Paige, left standing in the wings, suffers most. And we don’t get enough of Ma Rainey, who often disappears from the screen for long stretches. Credit to Davis, who doesn’t look much like Rainey but summons her spirit. Standing at the mike singing “Hear Me Talking to You,” Davis brings a time and a place back, imbuing them with the hope that much has changed and the suspicion that nothing has. “They wanna take your voice and trap it in all them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials, and then too cheap to buy you a Coca-Cola,” she bitterly observes, a rebuke whose sting remains unblunted.