“Ah-one, ah-two, ah-you know what to do.” Band leader Cutler (Colman Domingo) begins each practice or recording session with these simple tempo-setting words of encouragement, his tone a calm optimism that everything will be just fine, even if it ain’t fine at all. Indeed, nothing seems to go “just fine” in the recording session that makes up the majority of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director George C. Wolfe’s filmic adaptation of August Wilson’s play. Set in Chicago in 1927, the eponymous Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), a real-life blues legend, joins her band—Cutler on trombone, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) on bass, Toledo (Glynn Turman) on keys, and the ambitious young Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final on-screen performance) on trumpet—in the studio in order to produce a few song recordings. Fiery and fed up with white people’s attempts to control her music—particularly her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and the studio owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne)—Ma shows up to the studio when she wants, how she wants; and she gets what she wants out of the session, everyone else be damned. As both temperatures and tempers rise in the claustrophobic studio building, the various tensions eventually boil over into outright violence.
Through writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation of Wilson’s words paired with Wolfe’s direction, the theatrical origins of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are on full display. It often feels like a filmed play, although the ostentatious camera movements and editing choices generally do their best to prove why this film is distinctly “cinema.” Like Denzel Washington’s Fences (Washington is a producer on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), the film’s fixture on a single location and Wilson’s dialogue makes for an overly talky, overstuffed drama. Yet unlike Fences, the characters here are so complex and nuanced that I was won over by the incredible cast and their outstanding performances. Viola Davis is as remarkable as ever, and there’s not a single poor performance in the entire cast. Yet it’s Chadwick Boseman’s performance that truly stands out here as the cocky-yet-traumatized Levee. Boseman’s swan song embodies such poetic chaos in his seemingly effortless emotional shifts from charming idealism to despairing fury and back again; it is arguably his strongest on-screen performance, and were he to be honored with a posthumous Oscar, it would certainly be earned. Levee has dreams of having his own band and recording his own songs, but as his older, wiser, more world-weary bandmates tell him, he’s acting like a “fool.” There’s a monologue Levee gives about midway through the film that brought both chills and tears, and I may have breathed aloud “that was incredible” at its finale. Yet this is only the first of such exceptional dramatic moments Boseman gives in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; by the film’s conclusion, he’s given of himself entirely, poured himself out like an offering. As the credits rolled, I was reeling. I sincerely miss Boseman; his death in 2020 from colon cancer has left a mark of grief on me, and I’m saddened he’s gone too soon, while also grateful for the performances he gave.
“Ah-one, ah-two, ah-you know what to do,” Cutler says. But we do not know what to do in America. We’re all just improvising, riffing on the themes that have come before, and hoping the tune works out for the best. Black theologian James Cone once wrote, “The blues are true because they combine art and life, poetry and experience, the symbolic and the real. They are an artistic response to the chaos of life.” Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is, likewise, an artistic response to the chaotic reality of Black life in America in the 20th (and 21st) century. Though the film is set nearly a century ago, the themes of racial tension, white supremacy, Black artistic expression, and white-on-Black (and Black-on-Black) violence are still just as urgent and worthy of our attention. Through a fictional 90-minute cinematic narrative of a recording session, Wolfe and Co. have offered an incisive and insightful exploration of America both then and now. And through Boseman’s extraordinary performance and exemplary life, it’s a film that will stay with us long after the song has ended.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10514222/