“You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”Viola Davis, as Ma Rainey
Music flows through Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom like a muddy river, churning with the passion, pain, and pride of all the characters who dare step into its swift current. It affects everyone in different ways: Some view music as a transactional endeavor that offers a little joy and pays the bills. For the talented, mercurial cornet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman), music represents both liberation and salvation–a means of unhinged expression in a world otherwise built to keep him down. But for Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), whose powerful voice and charismatic appeal earn her the moniker “Queen of the Blues,” music doesn’t just help her understand life. It informs and emboldens her place in the world.
Based on the famed play by August Wilson, Rainey is set in Chicago during the peak of the Roaring 20s. The action takes place during one tumultuous recording session, in which Ma attempts to record an album of her blues repertoire. We spend most of this time with her band, as they mill about the rehearsal room and swap philosophies on music, racial injustice, and life in general.
It quickly becomes apparent that these men are very different on all three fronts. Levee boils over with pent-up anger and energy, and he desperately wants to channel these into his cornet playing. He brings in bouncier arrangements of Ma’s music, something that irritates the band and really pisses off Ma. Levee has star power, and he’s itching to prove it.
The other men are lifelong session players, and they know rocking the boat means risking their paychecks. Toldeo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) attempt to rein in Levee’s soaring ambitions and volcanic temper, both of which threaten to derail the recording session. Levee bristles at being handled, and his furious responses reveal the tragic effect that racism has had on his life.
Meanwhile, Ma storms into the studio like a force of nature. She quickly turns the day into a battle of wills with Irv (Jeremy Shamos), her high-strung manager, and Mel (Jonny Coyne), the prickly studio owner. When they make demands, Ma pushes back with demands of her own. Her reasons quickly become clear: Ma wants it known that they need her more than she needs them. That knowledge supplies her only source of leverage against the casual racism meant to marginalize her.
On the surface, there would appear to be a dichotomy between Levee and Ma. After all, he craves many of things that she has: A backing band, perceptible fame, and the savvy and spunk to clap back at white authority. The key difference is that Ma knows how quickly those things can be lost, while Levee seems to blunder right into disaster.
For all of director George C. Wolfe’s cinematic flourishes, Rainey never quite shakes its theatrical origins. And that’s not a knock, at all: This might feel like a filmed play, but it’s at least a really good filmed play. Wolfe correctly gives the actors the time and space to open up their performances and explore the nuances in Wilson’s dialogue. The intimate, dramatic scenes are so compelling that it’s almost startling when the film cuts to lush wide shots of Old Chicago. These scenes brim with stunning, honey-hued cinematography. Rainey may be a beautiful film to behold, but make no mistake: This is a showcase for actors.
That starts with Boseman’s performance, his last before succumbing to colon cancer last August. Although noticeably thinner, the illness did nothing to dampen Boseman’s ferocious dedication to the role. In fact, it almost feels like this tangle with mortality only provides amperage to his urgency and spirit. Boseman’s extended monologues are devastating in their emotional impact, and the movie draws considerable wattage from their power. Don’t be surprised if Boseman gets nominated for–and possibly wins–an Oscar for his strong work here.
Similar acclaim will likely go to Viola Davis. Her character isn’t onscreen as much as Levee, but Davis dominates all of her scenes. Ma Rainey was a larger-than-life figure, and playing her would be a daunting challenge for just about any actress. Thankfully, Davis is more than up for that challenge: She stomps into the studio, barks orders in every direction, and nails every musical number. She won an Oscar for the adaptation of Wilson’s play Fences, and she very well could win another.
Finally, there’s the music. Willie Dixon once observed that “the blues are the roots of all American music.” Listen to Ma and her band and you can hear how true that is: Rock, soul, funk, country–they’re all packed into this recording session. Music may help these players understand life, but it also gives us a better understanding of them. We see and hear what moves them, and it ends up moving us. This is one of the year’s best films.
94 min. R. Netflix.