Denzel Washington swaps directing and acting duties for a producing role in the second major screen adaptation of August Wilsons ‘Century Cycle’ plays, after 2016’s overly faithful take on Fences. This time out, the work being tackled is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set over one incredibly fraught Chicago afternoon in 1927 as ‘Mother of the Blues’ Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band battle through a series of furious interpersonal conflicts to record an album.
Though it’s Ma Rainey’s name in the title – and Viola Davis does get top billing – she’s absent for long stretches of the film, so Black Bottom really belongs to Chadwick Boseman’s tempestuous, ambitious trumpet player Levee, who wants to use the recording session to springboard his own career. Of course, Black Bottom will go down in history as Boseman’s final film before his tragic and shocking death earlier this year, and his phenomenal performance here serves as both a worthy cap to a career cut short and a deeply sad reminder of what has been lost.
Boseman is absolutely electric in every scene, whether he’s dancing through some good-natured arguments with his bandmates or delivering monologues with sledgehammer force. Levee’s arc is essentially a protracted nervous breakdown as his musical talent, foresight, and business savvy are mocked and ignored until he snaps, and Boseman makes this spiral into a magnetic spectacle. Scenes in which Levee chats excitedly about his future, or the monologue in which he rages at God, are perfectly played and absolutely heartbreaking in their current context.
Next to Boseman, the rest of the cast are caught in a very long shadow, but everyone’s putting in the kind of solid work that could steal the show in any other film. Davis is positively regal as Ma, decked out in spectacular clothes and war paint-esque make up, while Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman bring Wilson’s lyrical writing to vibrant life as Levee’s bandmates Cutler and Toledo.
A big problem with Washington’s Fences was that it felt pointless, barely distinguishable from a filming of the stage show, and director George C Wolfe has clearly taken that into account for Black Bottom (screenwriting credits go to actor and playwright Ruben Santiago, rather than Wilson himself as they did in Fences). For the most part, the slightly looser adaptation is a great move, especially switching the season from winter to a sweltering urban summer. There are a couple of overcorrections, like some pointlessly flashy visual tics, but Wolfe and Santiago successfully keep the claustrophobic interiors from feeling too stagey. Black Bottom’s events play out in almost real time, which could have felt like a rather theatrical gimmick, but is well handled, the stifling heat and inescapable studio making for a powerfully oppressive atmosphere.
Oddly enough, it’s the newly added outdoor scenes that are the least cinematic, the streets of Chicago deeply unconvincing and smothered with an ugly orange pall that makes the whole thing look cheap. From these less-than-stellar moments, heading back into the studio feels almost freeing, the understated art design and snazzy costumes capturing the era far better than the CG-assisted city. Ultimately, though, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is far less about its surroundings than it is its stars, particularly Boseman, and they all deliver with virtuosic skill.