Viola Davis looks frightening in the film version of August Wilson’s 1984 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Her monstrous eye shadow, shark-jawed false teeth (recalling Richard Kiel chomping at James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me), baggy bodysuit, and obviously dubbed singing prove that no one involved with this film feels any emotional connection with its historical subject.
Ma Rainey (born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Ga., in 1886) was known as “the Mother of the blues” for originating blues art and humor. It was her century-old achievement that inspired Wilson’s ambition to write a series of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, affirming black American vernacular. Now, in a film directed by George C. Wolfe and produced by Denzel Washington, Rainey’s bawdy honesty, and Wilson’s grand concept, have been hijacked to serve the bitter agenda of today’s racial-justice movement. A historically false, dramatically trite fiasco results.
During his Eighties sinecure at the Yale Repertory Theatre, where the play was originally workshopped, Wilson laid out a dramatic scheme that would provoke shock (and guilt). But for 2020, Wolfe and Washington emphasize “systemic racism” — the inescapable pressure of white corporate ownership that shadows Ma Rainey and her musical accompanists.
As filmed theater, portraying the recording session of a 1927 blues record, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom lacks the exciting personal dynamics seen in the art-making processes that distinguished Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996) and Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records (2008). The personal travails of Wilson’s musician characters — the older, resigned players set against the new-jazz aspirations and inconsolable anger of young upstart Levee (Chadwick Boseman), who becomes Ma Rainey’s foil — are recast as Black Lives Matter grievance-mongering. Instead of the fraternal interplay that Altman and Martin were so good at, Wolfe and Washington aim for predictable tragedy.
The banality of Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adapted script suggests satire, yet the film is fairly humorless, despite the musicians’ profane badinage. This bowdlerized version of August Wilson supplants the old Stagger Lee legend of black-on-black crime. The quintessential scene pits Levee’s streetwise blasphemy against the religious Cutler (Colman Domingo). It attacks black gospel spirituality, which was the religious inspiration for the civil-rights movement and which sparked Wilson’s secular skepticism, causing him to insist on black psychopathology as personified by Davis and Boseman.
Davis’s caricature of Ma Rainey is mortifying. She stomps around, scowling and emitting distrust and spittle. There’s no joy or emotional fulfillment in Rainey’s creativity. Just look at Davis’s repugnant visage. Her anger is modern, like those nose-ringed #BLM activists. First seen singing in a club, debasing herself with the lyric “I’m on my way / Crazy as I can be,” she confirms the media’s grotesque vision of George Floyd–Trayvon Martin–Eric Garner–Sandra Bland–Breonna Taylor victimhood.
Same goes for Chadwick Boseman’s Levee, a performance marred by the physical toll of the actor’s terminal illness but also by Wolfe and Washington’s conception of black artistic struggle as overacting. Levee, as critic John Demetry has pointed out, represents Wilson’s anguished idea of an unrecognized artist. That pathos contrasts with Boseman’s earlier performances as the overachievers Jackie Robinson (42) and James Brown (Get on Up), characterizations that woke culture, with its preference for black failure, overlooked. With the Levee portrayal, liberal and BLM audiences can congratulate themselves for appreciating Boseman’s talent despite having previously disregarded him — and all while enjoying his degradation. Awards-season acclaim can’t go lower than this.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom proves that modern race sensibilities have been exacerbated. In his classic 1976 study Stomping the Blues, Albert Murray insisted that black blues art was a means of joy and survival. Wolfe and Washington cave in to the worst ideas about race: that black life is all misery. Imagine the film with more artful casting — the sensuality Michael B. Jordan could have brought to Levee, the emotional variety Octavia Spencer could have brought to Rainey (as in her performances in last year’s satire Ma and the cautionary film Luce). The singer-comedienne Theresa Merritt and the actor Charles S. Dutton enriched Wilson’s Broadway production.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was the template for Wilson’s later, more complexly developed black colloquies. At his best, as in Seven Guitars (1996), he specialized in the contrapuntal interplay of down-home versus urban ideologies. So it’s especially disastrous that Ma Rainey has been filmed so poorly. Wolfe, known as a witty theater director, seems lost cinematically. He invents the closing scene of a white band whose pale, weak singer deracinates and desiccates Rainey’s legacy. It’s an appalling racist stunt.
Shame on Wolfe, Washington, and Davis (and too bad this was Boseman’s final performance). Has every black in contemporary showbiz bought into the same self-deprecating cynicism? They’ve turned August Wilson into an irate Tyler Perry. That’s not progress.