About 26 minutes into Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — the 1927 Chicago–set adaptation of the August Wilson play — comes a moment that neatly encapsulates the film’s failures. Blues singing powerhouse and mainstay Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) beckons Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), “Come over here and let me see that dress.” The camera is in close-up as Ma Rainey holds Dussie Mae from behind. She croons in the young woman’s ear, delighting her with talk about finding her finer dresses to wear. Ma Rainey’s bejeweled hands glide over Dussie Mae’s body. Yet the camera’s decision to remain so tight amounts to a mostly sexless moment, undercutting any real exploration of Ma Rainey’s queerness. The camera itself seems reluctant to detail the sensuality, but the film’s problems prove more expansive than that. Other faults are on display beyond the rote filmmaking: namely, a script that suggests potentially intriguing ideas but never explores them. Ma Rainey postures toward being an actor’s showcase, but its storytelling — and its actorly pitfalls — prohibit that from being the reality.
The bulk of Ma Rainey’s action homes in on a hothouse dynamic. The boldly egotistical blues star is in Chicago to lay down a record of some of her tried and true songs. While longtime collaborator Cutler (Colman Domingo trying his damnedest to breathe life into the story) is endlessly loyal to Ma Rainey’s whims, new trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) sees this gathering as a stepping stone for a greater career with his own band, recording the music he writes that he feels better reflects the pulse of the time. Ma Rainey, unsurprisingly, sees Levee as ungrateful and inexperienced. Egos clash. Sex and violence ensue. Yet, with all these combustible characters and incidents, Ma Rainey is a lifeless endeavor never able to shrug off its previous identity as a play to take advantage of the cinematic form.
I don’t want to obscure the rot at the heart of this film. August Wilson may be a beloved playwright, as evidenced by how keen Hollywood is to adapt his work, but Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s version of Ma Rainey does nothing to show us why this is the case. The script touches on issues that have the potential to be powerful — Black intra-racial relations, the tension between northern and southern Black folks, the ways Black artists must navigate white power structures that seek to strip their work bare. But these issues are merely touched on, and the dialogue that otherwise surrounds them is stilted, laughable even. Take, for example, the moment when Levee, in seducing Dussie Mae asks, “Can I introduce my red rooster to your brown hen?” A line that deserves an eye roll is instead received as if it is the height of seduction. Ma Rainey has the weight of Hollywood power players behind it, but it seems incapable or uninterested in taking advantage of the delights of what film can do.
There is a handsomeness to the cinematic costume design of Ann Roth and its touching period details, however; but these only paper over the fact that the film’s aesthetics as a whole are, at times, downright ugly. I can’t get over the sallow nature of the color palette. Director George C. Wolfe — who has clearly been ported from the world of theater, and I don’t mean this as a compliment — and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler create a strangely airless visual grammar for their film. The issues are apparent in the first few minutes full of odd decisions: lazy transitions, images rendered as newspaper clippings, inelegant editing work. When Ma Rainey appears in her upstairs recording studio, the camerawork is a bit more fluid, a sharp contrast to the static approach it takes downstairs while the band is rehearsing in a ramshackle room. The filmmakers rely too greatly on close-ups like that Dussie Mae sequence, forgetting the stories our bodies are likely to tell. In many ways, the camera acts as a spotlight does on the stage, making blatant choices to signal that this is a moment to pay attention to. But this has the effect of undercutting the acting; the camerawork needs to be more graceful in order to avoid feeling like a recorded play.
As for Ma Rainey herself, I am typically attracted to characters like her: messy, larger than life women who proudly proclaim in body and word their own worth with little care for how the world seeks to make them feel otherwise. But instead of feeling like a powerful emblem of the Black artistic tradition, and a complicated woman, Ma Rainey grates. She’s egotistical and selfish. At times, she’s downright cruel. These traits aren’t so much investigated as laid on thick without any care for the humanity that fuels them. Her queer identity is so fleetingly interrogated, it feels like a questionably methodical choice for representation points. I’m not sure any actor could save this story. Sure, Viola Davis has proven to be a steadily capable performer, particularly for the intensity with which she imbues her characters. But here she’s downright galling, all swagger and braggadocio in a fat suit that adds an uncomfortable undercurrent to the performance. Is this how the filmmakers view fat Black women? Why make her largesse — in terms of personality — so strangely grotesque? Why not give her juicy monologues, the kinds Chadwick Boseman is granted? Sadly, Davis plays Ma Rainey as a caricature; she’s never able to suggest interiority. She tosses her weight from side to side. She leers and licks her gold teeth. She’s brimming with decisions that obscure rather than underscore anything about the woman behind the legend.
Chadwick Boseman, in his final film role, fares better. Partially because the story is undoubtedly more interested in who his character is rather than what he represents. Many of the important turns in the film hinge on Boseman’s presence at the center. He plays Levee with a bravado that mirrors that of Ma Rainey, but this confidence belies a horrifying and sorrowful history. In the first of his lachrymose monologues, Boseman is called to embody the anger of his character that stems from watching the rape of his mother by a group of white men in her own home, when he was 8 years old. Boseman gives the scene his all. He’s anxious with overflowing energy. His eyes are wild. But again, the camerawork renders the monologue strangely claustrophobic, hobbling its potential emotional depth.
Ma Rainey handily demonstrates the strange place Black filmmaking occupies in Hollywood right now. Yes, there are more opportunities and visibility for Black filmmakers and actors on the Hollywood stage. But many of the works being made available — such as horror films and series, including Bad Hair, Lovecraft Country, and Antebellum — feel like they take advantage of an audience’s desire to see themselves onscreen without offering any of the potency or finesse necessary to make these stories work.
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