If there's a way to categorize Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the equal parts audacious and wistful new film streaming on Netflix, it would be to call it an actor's movie.
The audaciousness stems partly from a standout performance by Viola Davis, who plays a blues-belting singer in 1920s America as if she's carrying an urgent message from the gods. She tours incessantly to reach her Black audience. Her Ma Rainey character wears mink cowls and floral dresses, offering her flamboyance like a crown and managing her tent-show band as she would a lion tamer with her animals. She takes no quarter from the white men who want to control her career; she does as she pleases and wants her music played her way and only her way.
But there is wistfulness, more than a touch of longing and regret, that is not far from the surface of this brilliant film. It cannot be chased away by the rousing blues numbers or the proud playing of these working road musicians. Sadness comes partly from the plot, a crescendo of slights that lead to insults that lead to tragedy. While these musicians can wail, they are trapped by white society that still files them under the second-rate classification as "colored performers." Wistfulness also comes from the Oscar-worthy performance of Chadwick Boseman. His character, Levee, is a trumpeter in Ma Rainey's outfit who has higher ambitions that merely to play what he disdainfully calls "jug band music." He writes swinging songs on the side and is waiting for his chance to record his music with his own band.
Levee is also haunted by figurative ghosts. He still reckons with a terrible event in his past. Like Ma Rainey, Levee does not trust the white man to be good for his word and do right by these traveling performers. Like Ma Rainey, he is jaded, believing that others want to take what is his and leave him to rot. It is not a particularly positive view of humanity.
Boseman's shocking death in the fall of 2020 from colon cancer, of course, provides another layer of sadness to the viewer. For his performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is that good, a star-making turn for a star that had burned out prematurely.
Playwright August Wilson, who also died prematurely, at age 60, wrote Ma Rainey's Black Bottom as part of a 10-play cycle on Black life in America during different decades of the 20th century. It is the second Wilson play to be adapted into a film after Fences in 2016. Denzel Washington, who starred in that film, spearheaded this cinematic revival of Wilson's work.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is the only play of his series not to be set in Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh. In this case, Chicago is the backdrop, and the year is 1927. Wilson's America in this case takes in the experiences of Black migration from the Jim Crow South to large Northern cities, where work could be found and racism would be less overt.
But as the playwright suggests in his work, racism is still present and just as soul-deadening in the North. It comes from the lack of real jobs and good wages, the fleeing of white Americans to suburbs and the creation of Black ghettos in urban centers, the difficulty in getting loans for homes or businesses, and the thievery that wends through Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
Wilson once said that in a world where white culture dominates, a Black person must be strong enough to establish his own identity and forge a heritage that springs from the "African fountainhead." In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the emphasis is on the world "strong." In this production, it means having to stand up to white bosses to maintain identity and distinctness.
Director George C. Wolfe, a longtime Broadway director, frequently stages the white recording producer and white band manager standing in a a control room high above the musicians. They are ascendant in the social order of the 1920s, something that Ma Rainey and Levee cannot abide.
In the film, Ma has brought his musicians North for a few days to record in Chicago, laying down tracks on a small sound stage. The recording could lead to greater public exposure once a disc is released. Besides Levee, the three other musicians -- Toledo, Cutler and Slow Drag -- are veterans of blues revivals played under outdoor tents and in honky tonk bars throughout the South.
The other musicians are contented to carry on the blues traditions. Toledo, played by veteran theater and film actor Glynn Turman, tells the others that are leftovers from African tribes and part of a found culture in America. The musicians, and other artists of their ilk are like the peas and carrots in a stew that was made in Africa and heated here for a new audience, he says.
Levee, however, is not willing to accept being part of what he believes is a traveling minstrel show playing for pennies and confined to a Black niche. Boseman's character is young and burns with rage. He wants to write and perform music for the jazz age in America, for a mainstream white audience that will like the jive that he is producing. As the musicians sit in a downstairs room at the recording site rehearsing, they stew and bicker over what Black art means and its ultimate worth.
Meanwhile, Ma is reluctant to record in the studio, as she sits upstairs dripping with sweat and demanding bottles of Coke before she will sing. She threatens to walk out if she cannot perform her songs as she wants them done -- only her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) keeps her from leaving, chasing after her down an alleyway and past a gawking white crowd that stares at her statuesque presence.
Like Levee, Ma is also angry, believing that she is a pawn to be used by a white recording company that wants to cash in on her art. In a hushed exchange with Slow Drag, she tells him that "they don't care nothin' about me. All they want is my voice." After they are done with her and her band, she says, she will be cast out like a "dog in the alley." That is no way to treat a prideful women introduced onstage as Her Royal Highness, Mother of the Blues.
Ma knows that Black audiences will continue to revere her once the band goes back on the road to Memphis. For Levee, that is different. He wants to quit the band but needs the money to pay for his expensive lifestyle and the women he chases.
Boseman would have been a minor character in the film, compared to the powerful shadow cast by Ma, if not for a six-minute monologue midway through the film that exposes his vulnerability and frailty beneath the bluster. After band mates accuse him of being "spooked up" by the white man and kowtowing to the studio manager to get his music played, Boseman's character moves from fury to regret in one jaw-dropping speech.
Without giving too much away, he tells the story of how a white gang in Georgia chased out his prosperous family, causing permanent harm after they were forced to flee. Boseman tells this story as raw emotion pours out; he is suddenly the little boy who saw his family suffer at the hands of white thugs and is still attempting to live it down.
His performance in the scene and elsewhere in the film reveal the vulnerability behind the self-possessed man. It is as if he were sliced open and left to bleed. Few actors can communicate this change in the same key as Boseman.
At the beginning of the film, Levee has bought bright beige, leather shoes from his gambling money. He wants to look good, like he belongs. But it is later in the movie that Levee's egg-shell psyche cracks. He is disappointed in how he is dealt both by Ma and the recording manager, who becomes disdainful that his music can reach a white audience.
And when Levee breaks, it is a sad spectacle that can only lead downhill. By the movie's end, his new shoes are scuffed and so is his soul.
In one pointed moment toward the end of the film, Levee breaks down a door in the studio basement that had been locked. He wonders what he had been missing, what opportunities lay behind the wooden door. But when he enters the other side, he finds only an exposed brick wall. It goes nowhere.
Wolfe strikes a nice balance between maintaining the confined structure of the play and opening it up to show Chicago outside the studio, the elevated train tracks and passersby in their finest dress. In one scene, where two of the musicians go to fetch Ma's Coke, they enter a deli where a group of white onlookers gives them hateful looks. They are living, as Wilson and Wolfe tell us, in a white man's world where they must find a way to live.
Ultimately, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is about art and commerce -- in this case, Black art and white commerce -- and the contradictions that are inherent in being a proud outsider in white society. Those contradictions at times can lead to tragedy, to death, to insanity, to sickness.
Ma and Levee face those obstacles, Ma knowing that she may never achieve the wide success that her voice deserves and Levee realizing that he may never achieve his dream of independence.