' ' Cinema Romantico: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

I have never seen August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, one of his ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle, but George C. Wolfe’s cinematic adaptation makes it seem like it must be something special. A recording session by the celebrated blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) becomes the jumping-off place for a dramatic exploration of how so much American art was not merely influenced by African-Americans but co-opted or stolen from them, an injustice not only part and parcel to the broader systemic racism of America but one that directly fed into the sort of violence typically and ignorantly dismissed as Black on Black as a way to ignore what led to it in the first place. This material grades out at an A and my main takeaway from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is that I really wish I could see it on the stage.

This is not the stage, though, alas, and Wolfe’s film opens with a few superfluous exterior shots clumsily trying to suggest cinema without any sense that cinema denotes telling your story through visuals. Upon entering the recording studio where Ma has come to cut a record at the insistence of a producer Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), yearning to make her a crossover star, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” mostly falls into the rhythm of a photographed play, a flaw that cannot simply be written off on account of its performances because the nature of its photography in part hamstrings those performances. What’s more, by beginning outside the recording studio, providing glimpses of Ma Rainey performing and striding through her hotel, Wolfe undermines how the movie’s early scenes are supposed to be, simply, waiting for Ma Rainey to appear, building up her presence in our mind. At least the irony that once she does arrive, even though this is her music and her band and her session that, as a black woman in 1927, her authority remains constricted, is effectively conveyed. All they want is my voice, she says, referring to the recording label bigwigs but the whole world too. As such, moments like Ma stalling the session until she gets her contractually mandated Coca-Colas are among the most successful, playing less like flagrant Diva behavior than comic exhortations of what little power she does have, spotlighting her true place in the world.  

Levee (Chadwick Boseman), her young trumpeter, is a bundle of cocky contradictions. He, too, recognizes his place in the world, as several blistering monologues make clear, and yet he simultaneously sees his own talent and the white man’s ability to purvey that talent as his way out. He has brought with him a batch of his own songs to show to the producer, but also brays about making Ma’s material better, all of which she predictably shrugs off, seeing him as arrogant and in over his head. This hostility boils over to her girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Page), at whom Levee makes less than subtle passes, a subplot that despite Levee’s over the top seduction, remains strangely coy, especially where Ma and Dussie Mae are concerned, reduced to rote conflict.

All this tension is meant to take root in and manifest itself in the very blues which Ma Rainey sings, though that the proves perhaps the film’s gravest failure. Just as the bright white light cascading in through the windows never quite captures the deadly mood air lingering in the air and that will eventually come home to roost, the presentation of Ma Rainey’s music fails to evince the essential juxtaposition of the blues between its righteous fury and joyful raucousness. That is true of Davis’s performance too. Though she implicitly captures Ma’s swaggering bullishness, she never lives out the blues, never finding momentary freedom in them, perhaps compromised in part by having someone else lip sync the songs, like Davis is not really even there at the moment of truth. 

As Levee, meanwhile, the inherent electricity in Boseman’s preening and strutting is too often counteracted by a claustrophobic camera. True, the claustrophobia is part of the point, the rehearsal space where Levee and his bandmates spend much of the movie squabbling, a brick walled room with a door that is permanently locked, underlining the Black American experience of figurative, if not literal, imprisonment. But when Levee chastises God as nothing more than the Almighty of the White Man, the thunderous nature of his words is virtually crying out for the camera to cut to a wider shot, to give him room, to let his words truly echo. Wolfe, however, never goes wider, incredibly stifling all that fire and brimstone. This is the very staginess often employed as a critique of stage to screen adaptations, one dampening the character’s own livewire spirit, the sensation that anything could happen. Indeed, rather than a sudden explosion stemming from so much insidious, unwitting social rot, the ostensibly stunning conclusion feels premeditated, intellectually impressive but ultimately short on raw emotional truth. 

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