1927. On a sweltering hot Chicago day, renowned blues singer Ma Rainey attends a recording session for a new album. There are tensions between members of the band- with young trumpeter Levee, eager for his own record deal, clashing with established older members Toledo and Cutler- which escalate further when Ma arrives an hour late and begins her demands.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is the second piece in playwright August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle [also known as the Century Cycle] which looked at the Black experience throughout the twentieth century (with each play set in a different decade). Another of the Pittsburgh Cycle plays, Fences, was filmed in 2016, directed by Denzel Washington. Washington acts as producer here, as part of an arrangement to bring Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle to the big screen. Direction duties are taken by George C. Wolfe (Nights In Rodanthe), with the script adapted from Wilson's source material by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
Frankly, Viola Davis could read a takeaway menu and make it engrossing. Here, she's utterly superb as the rambunctious, take-no-prisoners Ma. Despite limited screen-time (27 minutes of a 94 minute film), she looms large over proceedings. There's a short, but very powerful scene, right at the beginning when Ma arrives at the studio and her car is damaged; immediately, she is out of the vehicle and starts to remonstrate with a white policeman. The cop's reaction is telling: he's never had a Black person, let alone a Black woman, speak to him in such a way before. What's also interesting is Ma has a girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), but that's never made an issue of or seen to be something controversial or wrong. Ultimately, Ma knows her worth- she knows the white producers see her voice only- but she'll be damned if she doesn't get the respect she's due. In a career of fascinating performances, this stands high as one of Davis' very best.
As with Fences, the ensemble cast all meet the high standards laid down by the leads. Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and Glynn Turman are just superb as the old-timers in the band, laughing at Levee's naivete and wanting to get the session done to get paid and go. There's such an authentic camaraderie between the men; you can believe them as an established group. Jeremy Shamos and Jonny Coyne play Ma's manager Irvin and studio owner Sturdyvant, at odds with how to deal with Ma: Irvin knows that you catch more flies with honey when it comes to Ma, whilst for Sturdyvant, time is money. Rounding out the cast are Paige as Dussie Mae- a sensuous and flirty performance- and Dusan Brown as Ma's nephew Sylvester whose stutter causes issues with the recording of the titular "Black Bottom".
Brandford Marsalis' incidental music and arrangements of 1920s blues songs is absolutely sublime, as are the fantastic costumes by Ann Roth, whose attention to detail- from Ma's OTT dresses to Levee's yellow shoes- is unparalleled. Wolfe doesn't pull many directorial tricks, allowing the script to do the talking, and focuses on the action in an unobtrusive way.
Ultimately, as with Fences, this feels like watching a theatre broadcast rather than a film. That said, it certainly doesn't take away from the raw power of the performances. Expect to see this getting some major awards love in the upcoming months.
Rating: 4 out of 5