Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Review)

At the heart of this adaptation of August Wilson’s stage play are two phenomenal performances. Viola Davis stars as the titular Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman (whose tragic death hangs heavy over this film, his final film) as jazz trumpeter Levee. Boseman is just outstanding here, his performance is loud and powerful, but marked by small touches. His natural charisma is perfectly suited to the role but is accentuated by technical skill; it is his ability to employ specific movements and tiny facial expressions that evoke so much that cements this as easily on of the year’s best performances. Davis also doesn’t disappoint, she is allowed to be an atypical figure and sells the role completely. There is a underlying sorrow always evident but a sternly upheld tenacity, this juxtaposition making for a fantastic character and for a layered performance.

These two points aside, this adaptation just feels overtly like an adaptation – and not a cinematic work in its own right. The narrative follows a recording session by Ma Rainey’s band, in which white studio staff wrestle for control of Black art and Black labour. The power struggles are clearly symbolic and are well articulated, in a literary and academic way. This is a good showpiece of racism and appropriation, ending with a brilliantly conceived and delivered sequence that makes for a fitting conclusion. Even this sequence though serves to illustrate the film’s missteps. The ending moment is supposed to connote rigidity and a lack of soul – a bland homogeneity and wider social themes. These are perfectly captured by the direction, the only issue being that this is emblematic of a lot of the direction.

This feels like it must be an excellent stage play. It has academic heft, is cleverly plotted and has sharp dialogue. The filmic treatment though does not bring it to life. This is a bland film lacking in passion and dynamism. There is a strict formality here, a rigidity, that is antithetical to the blues music it is centred around. And while the two leads are stellar, this seems more the result of great casting and acting rather than direction. The rest of the actors are fine but their direction leaves their characters feeling somewhat homogenous, they feel like mouthpieces or stage-props, acting in affected and artificial ways. This is a film that, at every point, speaks theatrically rather than cinematically. Powerful speeches carry the feel of speaking to an audience, often shot in a way that excludes other figures and that highlights this sense. However, without an audience, these moments seem emptily theatrical.

The build of the narrative also feels theatrical. We, at points, do leave a constrained setting but these digressions feel tokenistic and clumsy. When a wider world is given it is clear that they are not sure how to handle this wider world. Most of the film, though, takes place in the recording studio or a practice room, two settings that would work perfectly as on stage locations. These settings present a sense of pressure and claustrophobia that the narrative relies on as it builds and builds to an inevitable explosion. The explosion does come and while it registers on a symbolic and academic level – you know why it had to happen – it does not work on a narrative level, and lacks the emotional heft that is needed. The inherent pressure of the stage is lost in translation and atmosphere is not evoked in any cinematic way. The visual direction here is just rather substandard, as little is done to create energy or atmosphere. It is worth noting that the director of photography does a great job with middling direction, as the scenes are uniformly well lit (really beautifully lit, actually) and sharply shot – even if the visual choices are not hugely evocative. The production design and costuming are also excellent.

There is power at the heart of this and interesting themes; there are, of course, also two outstanding performances. However, this translation from stage to screen keeps all the awkwardness of stagecraft while capturing none of the magic of theatre. The vocabulary here is deeply uncinematic, and that matters in a film. Things may work on stage perfectly, but this relies on so many wider factors and a truly unique atmosphere. These things do not work on film – or at least not in the same way. What you are left with is a fascinating insight into an important figure, and a film worth watching, just not a compelling piece of cinema.

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