Chadwick Boseman gives towering performance in film of August Wilson’s play
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis is a film of a play written by August Wilson in 1984. Denzil Washington is one of the producers and he is known to be determined to bring all of the great playwright’s works to the screen. So how well did this play make the transition?
If you saw Fences which Denzil Washington himself starred in, you will have some idea of the style of this film, directed by George C Wolfe. It is more akin to a play being filmed, than a cinematic film, in that nearly everything happens on two sets. One is the recording studio, the other the green room in which the musicians chat and rehearse.
This needn’t be a bad thing. Film tells its story in pictures whereas theatre tells its story through people. And this is about people, two in particular. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey is terrific. Ma Rainey is a successful blues singer in the Southern black community in the early 20th century. She knows where she stands and what she wants. She’s only in the recording studio because there is now interest in black music from northern white Americans and she can earn a buck from it.
‘They don’t care nothing about me, ‘ she says, ‘all they want is my voice’. If you know your musical history you’ll know that at that time people like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin were starting to write ragtime jazz inspired by, or stolen from if you prefer, black music. By the way, the music is fabulous.
By contrast we have the late Chadwick Boseman’s horn player Levee. He’s a complex character, and for me the more interesting of the two. He is confident, indeed cocky, about his ability to play and compose music. Even though he would be outstanding purely on the grounds of his playing, he still feels the need to dress to stand out, from his sharp suit right down to his flashy shoes.
August Wilson shows us a time early in the twentieth century, when, although segregation was illegal in the north, racial prejudice and the sense that white people formed a superior class weren’t. There’s a moment when two of the black musicians step into a bar that’s full of white people. They turn around and leave.
Ma Rainey takes the lack of respect from white people in her stride, and just gets on with the job, and can’t wait to go home. Levee is more ambitious and sees opportunities in this new era where black music has a wider appeal – like the black bottom song and dance of the title.
The subtlety and authenticity of Mr Boseman’s performance reminds you of what a loss this man is to the world of acting. You see his brittle surface, but you soon find out about the trauma he suffered as a child as a result of white racism. So the actor conveys a tremendous feeling that there is a coiled spring just waiting to burst through the swaggering veneer. It leads to arguments in both the studio and the green room. And that tension runs throughout the play until its dramatic climax.
The only weakness is the one I mentioned earlier. This is a film of a play and whereas in the theatre you would be carried along by the sequence of events because you’re in the same room with the characters, those events seem a little melodramatic because of the separation of the screen.
So I don’t feel it’s quite a five star film but no question Chadwick Boseman gives a five star performance.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix.