The year 1920s, where blues and jazz music is in its golden age especially in the “color” communities (this is what they usually referred to themselves). People willing to queue in long lines just to watch the popular musician Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) singing her ‘Black Bottom’ version. As she went to tours with her band, conflict was inevitable (but seriously, what a film will be without conflict). Screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson brilliantly compressed the conflict in just one scene, allowing an overconfident trumpeter Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) to take seconds of spotlight, establishing the character’s personality and relationship.
I went to the films without any knowledge of what it would be; judging from the poster it would be a biopic with grand set design and costume. Imagine how surprised I am to discover that ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ (2020) is based on a play by Pulitzer winner August Wilson, who also wrote the play ‘Fences’. This brought in the characteristics of limited interior settings and overabundant various topics of dialogues became the main focus. Fortunately enough Director George C. Wolfe realized a film full of dialogue – no matter how engaging the weight discussion – would be mundane and put the focus in its visual style.
For a film that spent mostly inside of a recording studio, I must say the production design did a fantastic job to appeal to the audience eye. A recording studio isn’t a place for people to gather and socialize in 1920s Chicago and would perfectly make sense to surround the color with bland, monotonous brown color. Yet there’s just something appealing thanks to how they light the scene into a beautiful stage accompanied by the stylistic and vibrant costume design, especially Ma herself. Even with her limited appearance her green dress became a scene stealer that matches with her personality, showing how deeply Ann Roth understands the dynamic of these characters. Still, even with all of the magnificent set design, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ cannot escape its ‘stagy’ feel.
Another film-to-stage adaptation this year, Florian Zeller’s ‘The Father’ (2020) able to overcome the ‘stagy’ aspect with the naturalistic acting while still embracing the visual stage feels. ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ contradicts what ‘The Father’ did, although the reason is more to the film’s script I suppose. Don’t get me wrong, the cast especially Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis gave it all (Boseman really nails it and ends his career on a high note. Rest in Peace). Yet I can’t help to notice the line of acting and reality as the cast exaggerated their expression and the result is a wasted potential to dive dig into the character. It’s not the cast though. It’s the screenplay.
This film is based on a source material and obviously I can’t blame what August Wilson wrote because his writing is purposely for a stage play and stage play only. It is the task of a screenwriter to transform it into a cinematic experience and based on my experience ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ story is just another half-baked story. The intention is there. The ambition is big as hell, talking about racism, art, and even religion. But all of these felt disjointed and never really connected to my heart. Maybe the black exploitation got me but only on a whole bigger level without the investment of the character.
In the end, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is a pretty well made film with great acting and high production value that just left me empty to carry on after watching. It’s not a waste of time, it’s just watchable.