The beauty of great fiction is its ability to delve into a deeper truth than even reality. Storytelling, like all art, holds the capacity to lift itself up as a mirror, reflecting back to us the secrets we’d prefer not to acknowledge, peeling back the layers of our denial and forcing us to contend with truth at a level more profound than fact.
Certainly, that was on August Wilson’s mind when he first wrote his play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The second of his acclaimed 10-play cycle dealing with the lives and realities of African-Americans throughout the decades of the 20th century to be adapted into a film in recent years, following 2016’s Fences, it’s title character, Ma Rainey, was as real as they get. “The Mother of Blues,” as she was known, helped establish the standards of America’s first great music genre, laying the foundations for the next century of musicians to build upon. That does not make Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a true story.
Instead, Wilson’s play, like the new movie on which it is based, uses the factual reality of Ma Rainey to bring us into the truth he’s trying to present. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a story not of Rainey herself, but of the black musician in 1920’s America. The new film version of the play, adapted by writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe, embodies the spirt of Wilson’s endeavor to capture reality within the confines of fiction, bringing us closer to the truth than a biopic would ever be able.
More importantly, despite her name in the title, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) isn’t even the film’s main character. That distinction belongs to trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final performance), a hired musician for Rainey’s band with dreams of one day forming his own ensemble. The two are at odds from the very start, with Levee’s natural star power threatening to overshadow Rainey’s, an extreme no-no for hired players regardless of the decade.
Largely taking place in just two rooms, both of which exist inside a record studio where Rainey and her band are making records, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a small slice of the realities faced by black musicians trying to make their way in the 1920s. Its events occurring over a single day, the story pits Levee, filled with youthful exuberance and naivete, against Rainey’s seasoned diva. As tensions and temperatures in the studio rise, the two competing musicians are set on a collision course fueled by egos and dreams, which could lead to personal and professional disaster.
It’s difficult to discuss Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom without acknowledging that Boseman was just months from his deathbed while filming his role. Following his shocking death last August, it was revealed that Boseman had for years been suffering from colon cancer. That revelation put a shocking spin on almost the entirety of his career. Suddenly, his performance in movies like Black Panther carried with it the implication of a man solidifying his legacy.
Boseman was without a doubt one of this generation’s most dynamic and powerful performers, and it’s hard not to wonder if his abilities as an actor were fueled by fear of his potential death. You certainly have to wonder that watching Ma Rainey, as he is far from the muscular superhero seen in the MCU. Whether he was certain of his death or not, that he delivers a performance as powerful as he does here despite literally dying from cancer while giving it is, perhaps, the greatest feat of acting of all time, or at least recent memory. As Levee, Boseman reminds us of all he was capable, and might have been capable, as an actor. It is not only his best performance, it is one of the best performances in anything I’ve seen in years.
Davis, who earned her Oscar playing Rose in Fences, also puts in serious work transforming herself into the incomparable blueswoman. Her transcendent performance is the stuff of Oscar legend, though time will tell if the Academy is finally ready to accept Netflix as a producer of serious cinema. The psychological chess match that occurs between Rainey and Levee is stunning, and Davis gives as good as she gets from Boseman, delivering Rainey’s no nonsense attitude and proto-diva stylings with stunning force.
Of course, adapting Wilson is no small feat. His rapid-fire writing and complex characters are hard to capture in the cinematic format, especially for a story such as this, which takes place in just a couple of rooms. Santiago-Hudson and Wolfe, however, are able to capture the theatrical elements of Wilson’s writing without losing the requisite cinematics. The script and direction bring us directly into 1920s America and the realities for black people of the time—which largely reflect the realities their communities are still dealing with today.
What it all adds up to is an uncompromising truth hidden in the guise of fiction (which is, itself, hidden behind a veneer of truth). The result is a beautifully, stunning, thought provoking, and heartbreaking work that not only stands as one of the year’s best films but also unfortunately serves as a wonderful capstone to the life and career of Chadwick Boseman. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom may not be a true story but the story it tells is as real as it gets.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now available on Netflix.