Could August Wilson truly have known that in 2020, nearly a half-century after the debut of his first Broadway play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, how much all of us – especially white Americans – would still need to learn about the racial disparity that has plagued our country for centuries? A teacher, a prophet and, above all, a brilliant writer of dialogue and character, Wilson not only elucidated how whites consistently mistreated and misunderstood African Americans throughout the 20th century, but how the differences among African Americans, specifically in their own experiences and cultural beliefs, often led to tragedy and mistrust.
All of this comes through in the play’s highly accomplished film version (now in theaters and available on Netflix starting Dec. 18), savvily directed by George C. Wolfe, smartly adapted by Wilson’s frequent collaborator Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and vividly acted by a superb ensemble led by the absolutely stunning Chadwick Boseman (in his final film role, sadly) and the incredible Viola Davis, both of whom give performances that are worthy of Oscar consideration.
Set primarily at a 1927 recording session in Chicago for Ma Rainey, a popular real-life blues singer of the era, the film offers a brief glimpse into the life of this often imperious and demanding “diva.” While Ma is a “star” in her own universe, Davis – who brilliantly acts as much with her eyes as her mouth – instantly makes us understand that Ma is a woman forced to fight for everything she not only wants, but deserves. (For the record, Davis’ singing is partially dubbed.)
Indeed, nothing Ma gets (or does) comes without a fight, from a simple Coca-Cola to the money earned at the session by her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) to not being arrested by a policeman who doubts the legitimacy of her car ownership. Wilson also smartly shows how quickly Ma’s lesbian lover Dussie Mae (the lovely Taylour Paige) lapses into disloyalty, and how both her white manager Irvin (the ever-reliable Jeremy Shamos) and gruff recording studio head Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) treat her only slightly better than a common whore.
Still, despite the film’s title (and Davis’ star billing), Ma is essentially a supporting character in Wilson’s tapestry. The work’s focus is on her four-piece band, especially brash young trumpeter Levee (Boseman), whose youthful bravado and self-confidence practically jump off the screen. From his initial appearance, Boseman simply redefines the word “riveting,” whether he’s showing off the $11 yellow shoes that he just purchased to set him apart from his bandmates or bantering and arguing with those men, notably the stalwart Cutler (a superb Colman Domingo), who is merely trying to make it through the day, and the world-weary if not-so-wise Toledo (an excellent Glynn Turman).
What’s so incredibly remarkable about Boseman’s work is how skillfully he hides the inner pain just below Levee’s shiny surface, which makes its sudden emergence even harder to watch. For example, his retelling of the rape of his mother and the revenge taken by his father (which leads to even greater horror) – even if its subject matter feels a bit too familiar – is actually painful to hear! Once we digest it, though, we quickly comprehend how that childhood experience has shaped Levee into a person who refuses to take orders from anyone, including Cutler, Sturdyvant and even Ma. And Levee’s insistence on marching to his own drummer (so to speak) ends up leading to disastrous consequences.
Like all of Wilson’s work, Ma Rainey can feel needlessly talky (even at 90 minutes), even if Wolfe does the best he can to “open up” the film. No matter, though: These are words of wisdom, and even more importantly, truth that demands our attention.