Chadwick Boseman, an intimate scope make Ma Rainey's 'Black Bottom' emotionally urgent experience

By Doug Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune
Ma Rainey's

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, an adaptation of August Wilson's 1982 play of the same name and adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe, concerns the real-life blue singer Ma Rainey (Violas Davis). In the twilight years of her career, she tackles a new album in a Chicago recording station. Accompanying her is her band, which consists of guitarist Cutler (Colman Domingo) and trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Perhaps the only person with as pronounced of a personality as Ma Rainey is Levee, who has his own ambitions as a musician and isn't keen to compromise with anyone to fulfill those dreams.

Wilson's work is rightfully acclaimed as some of the most impactful productions to ever grace Broadway. But how does something like Ma Rainey translate into a film? Impressively well, as a matter of fact. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how that happened. Both Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson have made their own adjustments to the story, including changing the setting from the winter to the sizzling hot summertime. Some of these tweaks, like the pay-off to Levee constantly charging at a locked door, have been done to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by a movie. But the duo also knows that sometimes, things that aren't broke don't need to be fixed. In this case, what made the Ma Rainey play so compelling isn't compromised in the translation into a new medium. 

It's easy to imagine Ma Rainey falling prey to the distracting elements that plague other film adaptations of play, chiefly the act of engaging in sweeping camerawork to make the whole production feel "epic" rather than "stagey". Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson, though, are confident enough to maintain the intimate scope of the original show, with much of the story taking place in either a recording stage or a basement rehearsal space. Keeping things so self-contained isn't just good because it's faithful to the source material. It also works for Ma Rainey on its own artistic terms. Someone who's never even read or seen Wilson's work will still be gripped by Ma Rainey's intimate nature.

One of the advantages of this restrained sensibility is that Ma Rainey's digressions outside of this space a real sense of purpose. A scene of pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) reflecting on the larger experience of Black Americans while shots of Black Chicagoans sitting in window sills and standing against lamposts flash across the screen is effectively stirring. Meanwhile, keeping everything confined makes the bubbling tension between all the characters believable, particularly with regards to everyone's rapport with Levee. As both the audience and the other characters become trapped with Levee, a guy who starts out as a cocky musician with golden shoes becomes someone far more layered and damaged. 

Chadwick Boseman in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

The complexities of Levee as a character are reflected in two extended monologues brought to life through a Chadwick Boseman performance that cements why Ma Rainey is content to keep its scope so limited. When you've got actors this good, you don't need a thousand locations. Just Boseman talking about a traumatic childhood experience that informed how he treats white people, that's all you need. In this scene, Boseman communicates a lifetime of anguish, trauma, determination, scorn, and so many other emotions, all swirling around inside one volatile human being. Boseman utterly throws himself into a performance that's unlike anything else he's ever done. Even with all the hype generated by his work, I still wasn't prepared for how breathless I'd be left by Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

Inhabiting the titular role of Ma Rainey, Viola Davis also reaffirms her acting bona fidas with a turn that's a walking-talking paradox. A woman that's simultaneously fearless in demanding what she wants yet also tormented by her current status as an artist, you can't rip your eyes off Davis, especially with how much torment she communicates in her eyes. Davis and Boseman alone make Ma Rainey's Black Bottom worth watching. The fact that the production also delivers so much else (including a great supporting turn from Colman Domingo, impressive costume work, and thoughtful commentary on the struggles of being a Black artist) only cements Ma Rainey's Black Bottom as something exceptional.