In Netflix’s adaptation of August Wilson’s drama, Viola Davis falters while Chadwick Boseman costs better.
Photo: courtesy of Netflix
About 26 minutes Black bottom Ma Rainey – an adaptation of August Wilson’s play in Chicago in 1927 – comes a moment that neatly sums up the film’s failures. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), a blouse singer who sings and wears Main Street, invites Dussie Mae (Taylor Paige), “Come here and let me see that dress.” The camera is close up as Ma Rainey holds Dussie Mae from behind. He steps into the young woman’s ear, delighting her by talking about finding her finer dresses. Ma Rainey’s jeweled hands glide over Dussie Mae’s body. Still, the camera’s decision to stay so solid amounts to a largely sexless moment, undermining any real exploration of Ma Rainey’s oddities. The camera itself doesn’t seem to want to describe the sensuality in detail, but the film’s problems become more extensive than that. Other mistakes outside of filmmaking are exposed: namely, a script that suggests potentially intriguing ideas but never explores them. Ma Rainey attitudes towards being an actor’s showcase, but his narration – and the actor’s traps – forbid it to be a reality.
The majority Ma RaineyAction homes in the grill dynamic. The bravely selfish blues star is staying in Chicago to record some of his proven and true songs. While longtime collaborator Cutler (Colman Domingo tries his best to breathe life into the story) is endlessly loyal to Ma Rainey’s whims, new trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) sees the set as a springboard for a bigger career with his own band, recording music he writes feels better reflects the pulse of time. Ma Rainey, not surprisingly, sees Levee as ungrateful and inexperienced. Egos clash. Sex and violence follow. Yet with all these incendiary characters and incidents, Ma Rainey is a lifeless endeavor that is never able to abandon its previous identity as a play in order to take advantage of its cinematic form.
I don’t want to obscure the rot at the core of this film. August Wilson may be a beloved playwright, proving how willing Hollywood is to adapt his work, but the Ruben Santiago-Hudson version Ma Rainey nothing shows us why this is the case. The script touches on issues that could potentially be powerful – black intraracial relations, the tension between northern and southern blacks, the ways in which black artists have to navigate white power structures that want to expose their work. But these issues are only touched upon, and the dialogue that otherwise surrounds them is solid, even ridiculous. Take for example the moment when Levee seducing Dussie Mae asks, “Can I introduce my red rooster to your brown hen?” Instead, a line is received that deserves to be rotated as if it were the height of seduction. Ma Rainey he has the weight of Hollywood power players behind him, but seems incapable or uninterested in taking advantage of the pleasures of what the film can do.
Still, the handsome cinematic costume design is Ann Roth and its touching details from the period; but this is just a paper about the fact that the aesthetics of the film as a whole is, at times, quite ugly. I can’t get over the colorful nature of the color palette. Director George C. Wolfe – who has obviously been moved from the world of theater, and I don’t think of it as a compliment – and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler are creating an unusually airless visual grammar for his film. Problems are visible in the first few minutes full of unusual decisions: lazy transitions, pictures shown as newspaper clippings, inelegant editing work. When Ma Rainey shows up at her upstairs recording studio, the camera footage is small a more fluid, sharp contrast to the static approach needed downstairs while the band rehearses in a debauched room. Filmmakers rely too much on close-ups like that Dussie Mae sequence, forgetting the stories our bodies are likely to tell. In many ways, the camera acts as a spotlight on stage, making open choices that signal this this is a moment to pay attention to. But that results in undermining acting; the operation of the camera must be more graceful to avoid feeling like a recorded show.
As for Ma Rainey herself, I’m usually drawn to characters like her: messy, larger-than-life women who proudly declare their own worth in body and word with little concern about how the world wants to make them feel different. But instead of feeling like a powerful emblem of the black art tradition and like a complicated woman, Ma Rainey solves. She is selfish and selfish. Sometimes she is honestly cruel. These traits are not explored as much as they are set up without any concern for the humanity that feeds them. Her queer identity is so transiently examined, that it seems like a questionable methodical choice for representative points. I’m not sure any actor could save this story. Certainly, Viola Davis has proven to be a stably capable performer, especially because of the intensity with which she permeates her characters. But here she’s honest, all bloated and bragging in a greasy suit that adds an awkward underground current to the performance. Is that how filmmakers look at fat black women? Why make her generosity – as far as personality is concerned – so unusually grotesque? Why not give her juicy monologues, the kind Chadwick Boseman approves of? Unfortunately, Davis plays Ma Rainey as a caricature; it is never able to suggest the interior. He throws his weight from one side to the other. He leans over and licks his golden teeth. It’s full of decisions that disguise rather than underline anything about the woman behind the legend.
Chadwick Boseman, in his last film role, is doing better. Partly because the story is undoubtedly more interested in who his character is rather than what he represents. Many important twists in the film depend on Boseman’s presence at the center. Levee plays with bravura that reflects Ma Rainey, but this confidence refutes the terrifying and sad history. In the first of his monologues on lacrimosis, Boseman is called upon to embody the rage of his character that stems from observing his mother’s rape by a group of whites in his own home, when he was 8 years old. Boseman gives the stage his best. He is worried about excessive energy. His eyes are wild. But again, the cinematography makes the monologue unusually claustrophobic, shaking its potential emotional depth.
Ma Rainey it easily depicts the strange place currently occupied by black films in Hollywood. Yes, there are more opportunities and visibility for black filmmakers and actors on the Hollywood scene. But many works are available – like horror movies and series, including Bad hair,, Lovecraft Country,, i Antebellum – they feel as if they are taking advantage of the audience’s desire to be seen on screen without offering the potency or finesse needed for these stories to succeed.