Even without knowing the origins of the film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, it is possible to intuit that this is an adaptation of a play. The limited number of locations, the reduced group of characters, the predominance of dialogues and even monologues, indicate that this story was first thought to be represented on stage. Transferring this type of work to the big screen can be complicated, since the principles that govern the source material do not always adapt to the new medium, which sometimes seems to work on the basis of a foreign language. But even if we notice some of those details in this film, the successes it achieves are more meritorious.
The play was written by playwright August Wilson and is part of a series of ten works with which he tried to portray the experiences of African Americans throughout the twentieth century, associating each of these stories to a particular decade. In the case of this work, which was originally released in 1982, the decade in question corresponds to the 1920s, a period that saw significant growth in the cities with the arrival of people from the countryside. Produced by Denzel Washington, this is the second adaptation of Wilson's works, a process that the actor had begun with the film Fences (2016), which he starred in and directed. Here, the leading role goes to Viola Davis, who had also acted in that work, while the direction was in charge of George C. Wolfe, who has a long theatrical career.
The story takes place in the city of Chicago, in 1927, where the famous singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), nicknamed "the mother of the blues", records her songs to participate in the growing recording industry. The artist, however, is somewhat reluctant to leave her recordings under the power of others, specifically her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and producer Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), an issue that is reflected in her behavior, through a domineering, even capricious, attitude towards the rest. Rainey is accompanied to the recording studio by her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who, on the singer's orders, will be in charge of introducing one of the songs, despite the fact that he has a stutter, and by Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), the young and attractive partner of the artist.
Waiting for her there is her band, consisting of Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) on trumpet, Toledo (Glynn Turman) on piano, Cutler (Colman Domingo) on trombone and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass. What should have been a simple process is made difficult by the clash of personalities that occurs between Rainey and Levee, whose professional aspirations lead him to question a musical style that he considers somewhat antiquated, little connected to the popular rhythms of the time. The musician favors a more up-tempo sound that allows people to dance, and his future plans are to lead his own band. The heat becomes an important factor in the plot, which extends over the course of a single day, almost exclusively in a single location, stirring up the characters' spirits and leading to the conflict that breaks out between them.
Although they see the world in different ways, Rainey and Levee's starting point is the same: the past. For the singer, her experiences in show business have taught her that she must protect what she has built, for at every step she may encounter someone who seeks to appropriate her achievements. The trumpeter's family experiences, on the other hand, lead him to flee the traumas of childhood, to bet everything he has on designing his own path, one where fame and exuberance are his main goals. It is, in the end, the age or the generational distance between the two that ends up separating them, adopting in both cases a vigilant vision of the future.
There are several elements that come into play in the development of this work, such as violence, sexuality, power hierarchies and the relationship between art and the market, but one of the most important dimensions of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is linked to the racial component of American society. From the very first minutes, the film emphasizes this aspect of the story by showing two black men running through a forest at night, as if they were running away from something. The initial impression is altered seconds later, when the film shows us that they actually wanted to hurry to see one of the shows of the protagonist, whose career had a special success in the southern states of that country. The very genre of music that made her famous has an indelible connection to the history of that area, as it grew out of the songs that slaves created decades earlier.
Issues of race run throughout the play, and also determine how the characters relate to each other. They are in the pain Levee must bear, in how Rainey's career unfolded, in Toledo's reflections, and in Sturdyvant's entrepreneurial motivations. This gives way to a subterranean tension, which is felt throughout the film, waiting for the right moment to surface. Within the economic and social structure in which the film unfolds, which is also based on the color of the individuals' skin, the characters strive to maintain or modify these forces in action, an exercise where the first of the options seems simpler.
While this adaptation is not simply about setting up a camera in front of a theatrical stage, Wolfe's efforts to give it a more cinematic feel do not seem sufficient. With a few exceptions, the compositions of the shots do not stand out much, nor do they take full advantage of the possibilities offered by the language of cinema. Meanwhile, the somewhat contrived air conveyed by the production design, especially in the exterior scenes, reminds us repeatedly that we are in front of a set of sets. It is the power of the performances of his cast that makes us believe that we are in situations endowed with life and immerses us in the illusion he wants to convey.
Davis, as usual, fills every scene with a magnetic presence, which even becomes intimidating due to the character of his character. His quirky appearance, with gold teeth and sweat-drenched makeup, gives Rainey a defiant aura, as if he were acting by his own rules. Boseman's job, meanwhile, is to invoke an image as charismatic as it is opportunistic, in which her wide smile can serve as either an invitation or a warning of danger. The singer doesn't need to speak much to make herself understood, while the trumpeter occupies words as a tool to creep toward his prey. Watching them inhabit their characters is impressive and, thanks to the moments that Ruben Santiago-Hudson's script gives them to shine, we can appreciate that work in all its splendor.
Because of its tight narrative framework, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom resembles a pressure cooker in which different ingredients are cooked and the temperature mixes their flavors. It is a compact but powerful narrative, whose pieces point to general ideas that allow this work to be used as a starting point for a broader discussion.