Viola Davis (center) in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’ (Photo: David Lee/Netflix)
By Ryan Leeds
Live performance might be on hold, but Netflix is offering the next best thing. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres this Friday on the streaming service, and it’s the closest we’ll come to a riveting night of theater for a while. Given that it’s adapted from August Wilson’s stage play of the same name, the theatricality makes sense.
The film is the second in a series based on ten Wilson plays, which chronicle the 20th-century African American experience. Actor Denzel Washington starred and produced in the first film, Fences, in 2016. With Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, he returns as producer and plans to bring the remaining eight works to the screen.
Director George C. Wolfe has assembled a thoroughly competent cast whose extensive stage talents transfer perfectly to film. Oscar, Emmy, and two-time Tony Award winner Viola Davis stars as titular diva based on the real-life character Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Although she died at the young age of 53, Rainey’s influence in early African American music was so impactful that she was dubbed the “Mother of the Blues.”
Davis, a formidable actor who has appeared on Broadway in three August Wilson plays, remains a powerful presence thanks to her natural skill and physical transformation. She gained weight for the role and also wore prosthetics, a choice she told the New York Times, made her feel “fan-friggin’-tastic,” and reminded her, “I don’t have to barter for my worth. I was just born with it.”
There is no doubt that Ma is always in charge, especially in the recording studio where the uptight white executives, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), and Ma’s manager, Irvin (Jeremy Stamos), rush the songstress to finish a recording.
“They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice,” she tells her trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), adding, “If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.”
Still, it’s Ma who holds firm. “We’ll be ready to go in 15 minutes,” Irvin announces. “We’ll be ready to go when Madame says we’re ready. That’s the way it goes around here,” she declares.
Rainey, like many artists throughout musical history, were accustomed to the whitewashing of their songs. Often, black artists would write and record songs only to get a meager sum from the record label. Meanwhile, notable white artists would appropriate the tunes for themselves and make fortunes from them.
Ma won’t back down to anyone—not even to members of her own band. Her trumpeter, Levee (Chadwick Boseman), has grown a bit arrogant in his belief that people want to hear a new, jazzier sound. It’s a stark departure from the unique sound that Ma is mining. “Find somebody to replace Levee when we get to Memphis. Levee ain’t nothing but trouble,” Ma tells Cutler.
The film marks one of Boseman’s final screen turns. Earlier this year, the actor died from colon cancer. Unbeknownst to the cast and crew, he was simultaneously filming while battling the disease. This makes his performance even more heart-wrenching, and it’s difficult to watch without developing a lump in the throat, particularly during his poignant monologues.
There is a Shakespearean element to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, adapted for the screen by long-time Wilson interpreter Ruben Santiago-Hudson. That is both the beauty and pain: Beauty in the rich language, relatability, and timeless quality. Pain in the harsh reality that the same struggles faced by these characters continue to plague the Black community nearly 100 years later.
With screen adaptations of these vital plays, Wilson’s voice will be heard by a much wider audience—and that is something to sing about.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.