‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ shines in acting, but falls short

Scott Powell

Vintage film reel graphic.
Collegian Film Reviews Graphic (Rachel Macias | The Collegian)

Watching “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a little bit like watching a heart rate monitor: mostly flat and monotonous but bursting to life every once in a while in brief yet powerful explosions of raw passion that leave the viewer dumbstruck with emotion and baffled as to where this sudden burst of feeling came.

Based on the 1982 August Wilson play of the same name, the 2020 film tells the story of young, starry-eyed, trumpet-tooting blues musician Levee Green — played with a guttural emotional vulnerability by the late Chadwick Boseman — struggling to make a name for himself in a music industry dominated by white record producers who see him, his music and his people as nothing more than exploitable commercial commodities, and Black artists who seem to have resigned themselves to this exploitation. 

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When it comes to the essential building blocks of a story, “Ma Rainey” excels on every level. It’s a dense and tragic tale of the age-old struggle between individual, idealistic passion and cold, cruel, indifferent reality, with cement-thick layers that are skillfully penetrated in quick, jazzy, spitfire dialogue from the pen of one of America’s finest playwrights. It’s brought to life by fiery performances from Boseman and Viola Davis, who plays the titular stone-faced band leader, defeated in spirit, though not sass, by years of having to play by her white employers’ soulless rules. 

With such a solid foundation, you would expect “Ma Rainey” to be a skyscraper of a film. Unfortunately, the final product is little more than a sod prairie hut. This is largely a result of the film’s slipshod composition, which does hardly anything to accentuate the deep and complicated themes that lie at the heart of the story and at the heart of Davis and Boseman’s performances.

This is a story about the intrinsic, uncomfortable connections between revolutionary works of art and the painful experiences that give birth to them. It’s about people in a state of wild desperation whose oppressive situation leaves them with no choice but to express their struggle and their story in a manner that defies all of the rules previously established by their society for what qualifies as great art.

Despite this reckless spirit that drives the story forward, the visuals in “Ma Rainey” are exceptionally standard. Every aesthetic element — from the film’s cinematography to its production design to its editing — seems to have been pulled straight from the big book of the Hollywood blockbuster formula. The set and costumes all shimmer with sweet, candy-colored pastel tones lit by low-contrast, high-key lighting that evokes a pleasant, nostalgic atmosphere: the fun, carefree world of 1920s Americana. Shots are framed in traditional angles by a mostly stationary camera and edited together in an invisible fashion that doesn’t disrupt the even, calming flow of the images. 

Yet these are precisely the elements that ought to set the film apart as a film. Wicked wordsmithing and solid performances are not unique to the cinema and can be found just as easily in a stage production of Wilson’s play. If this story was going to succeed as a screen adaptation, it needed to understand how the syntax of cinema works and where it overlaps with that of the stage and that of blues music. Instead, Netflix’s film comes off as nothing more than a filmed version of Wilson’s play. One that is safe, predictable and unimposing, not wanting to step too much on the standard, snooze-worthy conventions that film-streaming audiences are comfortable with.

But the story of Ma Rainey and the story of Levee and the story of the Great Migration and jazz and blues are all stories of disruption. That’s where their power comes from. These are people, events and songs that turned the pain and uncertainty and terror of the human experience, felt so deeply by the African American community in the post-Reconstruction South, into vibrant tunes that bust apart the clean, crisp harmonies of the classical composers that had monopolized the ears of American cities for the past century and a half, infusing the nation with a new, urgent rhythm that redefined our cultural psyche for the next hundred years.

This energy and this desperate, wild longing to be a part of the American Dream is what Wilson captured so brilliantly in his play, and what Davis and Boseman match in their performances, yet it’s crushed by a compositional style that resorts to the safe and simple conventions of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.

Scott Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.