A Jazz Age diva and her band spend their afternoon in a sweltering recording studio.
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman
Review by Jon Kissel
Given a choice between spending time in the studio or the rehearsal room that Ma never sets a foot in, I’d always choose the studio. Davis is well-known for facial excretions, usually of the tears and snot variety, but here, it’s sweat. Ma looks bad in almost every frame, overly made-up and uncomfortable, possibly due to all the weight Davis put on for the role. That she is still magnetic and pulls focus every time she’s in frame is completely due to Davis bursting through these limitations and reducing her physicality to one character trait amongst many. Davis’ Ma is a diva, but a diva with a purpose. Making these white men do what she tells them to do, when she’s a successful singer who’s making herself and them money, shouldn’t be as difficult as it is, and the way they second-guess her and drag their feet demonstrates the limits of capitalism to even out racism. There’s still some part of her manager or the studio executive that resents being subservient to her, and that resentment manifests itself in sloppiness, like they don’t have to do their best work because it’s in service to Ma and she should be happy with their B or C game. Her refusal to put up with any of it turns her diva character from a nuisance to a person who knows exactly what her worth is in this world and won’t accept anything less.
Downstairs, characters like Turman’s Toledo are the antithesis to Ma’s righteous demander. He’s happy to get what he can. His strategy for dealing with white people is through surrogates like Ma who can make the demands for him. Levee’s is to lull them into a false sense of security, and then strike when the moment’s right. Enough right moments, and he’ll get to be where Ma is. Levee describes how he came about this strategy with a harrowing backstory, where his aspirational father traded his ambitions for revenge on the gang of white men who burst into his home and raped his wife. The film doesn’t say either strategy is the right one, but laments that a strategy is necessary in the first place.
If Wolfe had more of a cinematic eye, he’d be able to turn the considerable amount of material in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom into something more visually compelling. The montage of Ma’s stuttering nephew trying and failing to get a part right is the best thing I can say for his direction, and that’s not saying much. He turns over much of the film to his cast, a reasonable choice with actors like these, but utility with a monologue is a different thing than rapport or conversational momentum, neither of which I thought this film had. An actor as suave as Boseman can’t make ‘can I introduce my red rooster to your brown hen’ sound anything other than gross. The finale, leftist 101, is well-acted but feels too abrupt, like Boseman wasn’t communicating an unpredictability that would lead to this action, or more likely, the direction wasn’t creating a tone or a sense of foreboding that made it feel credible. Future August Wilson adaptations will surely have no problem attracting A-list talent, but they’re going to need directors with more vision. C+