In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Viola Davis occupies the screen with the imperious, implacable command of a prizefighter, which in many ways her title character has been forced to become.
With her teeth extravagantly capped, her cheeks lavishly rouged, and her eyes ringed with bruiselike shadows, Davis’ Ma Rainey is a terrifying, transfixing figure: domineering, mercurial, and deeply wounded. In George C. Wolfe’s captivating adaptation of August Wilson’s play, she exerts the primary centrifugal pull on a production that obeys the confines of Wilson’s tight staging — the story takes place in a Chicago recording studio over the course of one day — but never feels cramped or limited. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom might ostensibly dramatize the recording of the real-life singer’s hit song in 1927. But Wilson’s prodigious torrent of words — the endless stories, soliloquies, and entreaties to heaven above — sing with as much musicality as the vintage blues tunes that punctuate the dialogue.
As often as not, those soaring speeches are delivered by Levee, a horn player portrayed by Chadwick Boseman in a performance every bit as virtuosic as Davis’. As the bantamweight challenger to Ma Rainey’s title, Boseman’s Levee is alert, impatient, and fleet of foot. Where she finds her power in taking her time, Levee finds his in speed and impulse; having been plucked from the Southern minstrel circuit to achieve stardom in the North (a trajectory that is efficiently covered in an opening montage), Ma Rainey is rightfully suspicious of the White producers eager to exploit her talent and popular appeal; Levee, for his part, is convinced that he can join their game and win it from the inside.
Similar debates — accommodation versus revolution, assimilation versus cultural integrity, theft versus homage — run through the film like the ostinato of a smoothly traveling bass line. When Levee and his fellow musicians gather at the studio (the rest of the band is played by Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts), the most pressing dramatic question is when Ma will show up, or if she will show up at all. As a White producer ( Jeremy Shamos) becomes increasingly agitated, the men chat, tune up, and rib each other with ribald abandon.
Levee’s new shoes lead Slow Drag (Potts) to criticize the youthful pursuit of momentary pleasures when their energy should be focused on building a solid future for the next generation. Levee, sharp-tongued and bristling with ambition, is having none of it. His impetuousness will trap him in more ways than one by the time the day is over.
When Ma Rainey finally shows up draped in velvets and furs, her ample décolletage bathed in shimmering perspiration, the conflict ensues in earnest and becomes more psychological. She doesn’t like Levee; not only because of his headstrong hubris but because he has eyes for Ma’s deferential young girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Tensions rise even further when Ma insists that her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) deliver the title song’s spoken introduction, despite the fact that he has a stutter.
That recurring bit, written by Wilson as comic relief in 1982, hasn’t aged particularly well. But the crackling energy and low-boil rage that keeps Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at a simmer have lost none of their power. Wolfe keeps the production simple, albeit with attractively rich visual values and gorgeous costumes, allowing the performances to exert their mesmerizing force. And nowhere is that magnetism more palpable than when Davis and Boseman are going toe to toe, their energies repelling one another one moment and fusing the next.
It’s both exhilarating and deeply upsetting, watching two actors at the height of their powers, but knowing that this is the final screen appearance of Boseman, who died in August. He might have been best known for playing a superhero in Black Panther, but the effortlessness with which he inhabits Levee reminds viewers of just how profound and still-untapped his talents were. (His most stirring speech, an angry argument with God, can’t help but carry a tragic double meaning here.) There aren’t enough words to describe just how breathtaking Davis’ performance is as Ma Rainey. When it comes to Boseman’s, on the other hand, only one seems to suffice: Damn, damn, damn.