Identifying which medium best suits a story can be a difficult task for filmmakers. Playwright August Wilson clearly knew how to tell “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,” for every minute of this story feels meant for the stage.
Having a film that feels like a play can be rather frustrating for viewers. Adapting Wilson’s story to the screen, director George C. Wolfe captures the heart of Wilson’s story, creating a film with terrific performances that clearly feels like it’s in the wrong medium.
Set in Chicago during 1927, the film follows the tension between blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her musicians and recording manager, specifically her ambitious, yet arrogant horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final role). The film almost entirely takes place within a recording studio that the musicians attempt to work in, making us realize right away that the story we’re watching was originally meant for the stage.
Watching a film that takes place almost entirely in one location isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Another film remade from one of August Wilson’s works, “Fences” in 2016, was remarkably adapted due to its powerful depiction of family dysfunction and interpersonal struggles, making us lose sight of the fact that we were following the characters mostly in their house.
While “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” is able to keep us entertained thanks to Davis’s and Boseman’s staggering acting abilities, as a film, the story doesn’t function as it should. The conflict that the characters experience just doesn’t make for that remarkable of a film narrative and the style in which the film was shot better serves the stage.
Everything about the film is very theatrical, from the passionate, exaggerated acting, to the production design, to the narrative dialogue. Wolfe directs the film in a manner that makes us feel like we’re watching a play being filmed which, from a viewer’s standpoint, just doesn’t execute properly.
With all the issues surrounding the film, the great Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman are able to capture our attention with their fantastic acting abilities. Their work is nothing short of terrific, Boseman’s performance a somber reminder of the talent he possessed and how we lost a passionate performer too soon. I predict that Boseman will at least be nominated for a posthumous Oscar, and very likely has a shot of winning.
Davis portrays the real-life Ma Rainey with nuance and power, her work a reminder of what a gifted actress she is. Every scene that Davis acts in is hers, her presence dominating the screen and keeping us thoroughly engaged.
Those who love broadway and plays in general will enjoy seeing a film that resembles such a style of storytelling. For casual film-goers, “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” may come across as rather awkward to view, for the theatrical nature of the film makes it hard to connect to the story and conflict through a screen.
For all its faults, the film is without question a testament to the acting abilities of two great stars, one of which we sadly won’t see again.