It’s been four years since Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in Fences, the movie adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. At the time, it seemed like a great tribute to an acclaimed playwright, as well as a fantastic showcase for its actors. Now, with the release of Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the second play in his “Pittsburgh Cycle,” it’s clear that Fences was the start of a labor of love by Washington to adapt all of Wilson’s plays.
This one, included in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle despite being set in Chicago, transports the audience to the 1920s, where Ma Rainey (Davis), a popular and indomitable blues singer, is set to record an album of her songs. That band includes Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman, in his final role), a cocky and ambitious trumpet player with dreams of breaking out on his own.
They’re both somewhat at the mercy of white gatekeepers, though, including Rainey’s manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and record label owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). Over the course of the film, those two do their level best to make sure Ma is happy enough to record, while Levee banters and bickers with the other members of the band, including Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts).
Directed by George C. Wolfe, adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and produced by Washington, the film goes beyond the usual type of Black-centric historical stories that are told. Wilson once said that his plays “offer (white Americans) a different way to look at Black Americans,” and putting forth a story revolving around two strong Black leads in the 1920s certainly qualifies.
While societal impediments to their success are not ignored, those merely serve as the sideshow to the battles going on within the recording studio. The film stays true to its theater roots by incorporating long scenes in one room or another, but any staginess that results is overwhelmed by the quality of the writing and the acting.
Wolfe and his team also keep things moving by constantly changing shots from one character to another, making sure that the other actors’ reactions are just as important as the lines that another actor is saying. Davis and Boseman are the clear stars, but everyone else plays a big part in setting the mood of the film overall.
Playing Ma is a great change of pace for Davis, who tends to fall back on her usual, if formidable, bag of tricks. This performance makes her go to a new place, and it’s one that’s highly entertaining.
In his final role before his death August 28, Boseman is as astonishing as ever. He’s brash and in-your-face, and you can’t take your eyes off of him. At the same time, it’s one of his few movie roles where expectations for the character weren’t already set in stone, and the fact that it equals the impact of those others shows what transcendent actor he was.
Too often, Black history in movies has been confined to the 1860s or the 1960s, ignoring the wealth of stories that could otherwise be told. Illuminating another of Wilson’s plays, which cumulatively represent each decade of the 20th century, helps to broaden the scope and shine a light on what a master storyteller he was.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is playing in select theaters and will debut on Netflix on December 18.