It’s not easy to translate an August Wilson play to the silver screen, yet noted theater veteran George C. Wolfe does his utmost from a tight-knit setting in this joyous, as well as wrenching, inspired music-infused historical fiction.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom features Chadwick Boseman (21 Bridges) and Viola Davis (an Oscar winner for the adaptation of Wilson’s Fences opposite Denzel Washington, a producer here) among a capable ensemble around a largely forgotten actual blues singer who paved the way for many who would end up of more renown.
A 1927 tent show in her native Georgia is the venue for the titular, imposing, padded performer with smeared makeup and glittery gold teeth.
Yet, a voluble, though finely condensed adaptation from Ruben Santiago-Hudson honors the progenitor’s genuineness offers much lively cinema mainly from a recording session in a very warm Chicago basement studio.
Accompanying the late, strutting Rainey is her well younger female lover Dussie Mae (Taylour Page) and stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). She’s helped make her white label manager (Jeremy Shamos) and snide studio engineer (Johnny Coyne) so no bossing a posturing, prideful woman who wears a burden of life experiences and needs her Coke when she asks for it.
Boseman’s gaunt, maverick young trumpeter Levee has an intensity to his arrangements and output that more than have dancing intimations about them. It gets in Ma’s craw with her hardened obstinacy in not wanting to shift away from what has brought much plaudits and joy. Even if its roots are soiled in cruel divisions.
Levee has that brilliant, blind ambition to stir the pot that can have fateful, self-defeating repercussions with one backup musician in particular, Colman Doming (a Broadway vet and a cast member of the small-screen spin-off Fear The Walking Dead) as second-in-charge trombonist Cutler taken aback by the upstart’s ideology and insubordinate ways.
In a very manageable runtime the pitch-perfect period look reflects the overall high-caliber production values as harsh reality don’t go unnoticed, especially the effects of racial bias, subtly calibrated that feel rather timely.
Davis (who’s excelled on the small-screen as well as in film roles in recent years besides The Help – she later regretted taking on that project – like Windows) counters the delicate dignity in Fences with stellar survivalist, protective suspiciousness. That the unspoken epilogue keenly captures in a ‘jazz band’ blues recording likely to earn more success than its pained initiators.
As wonderful and accomplished as she is, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom wouldn’t really marinate behind its popular music without Levee’s dynamism that the late Boseman marvelously relays with world-weary prescient naivety. The portrait of an individual half his age latches onto human eccentricities in ways that accentuate a legacy of such a short-lived career with effortless reverence for the real-life James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and Jackie Robinson, not to mention Marvel Comics.