Legendary theatrical director George C. Wolfe launched his screen career with adaptations of plays for PBS series like “Great Performances” and “American Playhouse,” and he brings that same politely reverential energy to August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” But even if this version never shakes off its stage roots, it does act as a stately jewel box that houses an extraordinary ensemble of performances.
Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman get the meatiest roles here — and make the most of absolutely every second they’re on camera — but this Netflix feature is just as much a showcase for the talents of the always-brilliant Colman Domingo and the legendary Glynn Turman. Wolfe not only guides his top-flight cast to greatness, but he also keeps the plays themes of art vs. commerce and representation vs. exploitation front and center.
It’s 1927 Chicago, and legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Davis) and her band are set to record three songs in a session overseen by her manager and the owner of the record label, both of whom are white and both of whom have their own ideas about what Ma should sing and how she should sing it. (Rainey was a real-life blues legend, but the story is otherwise speculative fiction on the part of Wilson and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who previously collaborated with Wolfe on the 2005 HBO adaptation of Santiago-Hudson’s one-man show “Lackawanna Blues.”)
Ma’s band, who arrives at the studio well before she does, has its own internal struggles: veterans Toledo (Turman) and bandleader Cutler (Domingo) are there to follow Ma’s lead and to give her what she wants, no questions asked, while brash and talented horn player Levee (Boseman) tries to sprinkle jazz riffs into existing songs while arranging new versions of other ones over Ma’s objections. Over the course of one uncomfortable recording session, egos will clash, and both the musicians and the money men will learn first-hand that Ma Rainey didn’t rise to the top by being quiet and amenable about her own music.
Boseman would cast a huge shadow over the film even if he hadn’t tragically passed away earlier this year at the age of 43. Levee is the story’s catalyst, the sand in the oyster, and Boseman makes every moment crackle, whether he’s crowing over his fancy new shoes, seducing Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige, “Zola”), or recalling the trauma of witnessing the violent acts perpetrated against his parents by Mississippi racists. You can sense him tempering his performance as this larger-than-life character for the camera rather than for the stage, and it’s consistently gripping.
The same goes for Davis in the title role; as written, Ma Rainey doesn’t wear her past on her sleeve, but the actress suffuses her every line and action with a career’s worth of artistic hurdles and indignations. She is fluent in both power and vulnerability, whether she is weathering the stares of the residents of a respectable Black boarding house who look down on her for being an entertainer or the machinations of the white music industry that sees her merely as a commodity. Her kind devotion to Dussie Mae and to her meek, stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) are matched only by her refusal to back down for anyone else.
Wolfe finds grace notes for the less prominent roles as well: Turman packs a life of music and struggle into each world-weary line, while Domingo has a gift for placing himself squarely into an earlier era just by the way he stands and the precision of his pronunciation, like an actor who just walked right out of an early talkie. Esteemed costume designer Ann Roth provides an underscoring to each character, from Ma’s regal daywear to the inconspicuous tailoring on Sylvester.
“Inconspicuous” could also be used to describe Wolfe’s overall style at moving this material from one medium to another. There are, of course, many ways to bring a play before the cameras, from a radical reinvention where characters are always outside or on the move to an aggressively claustrophobic reimagining that makes viewers feels as hemmed-in as the characters. (The latter approach was often embraced by the likes of William Friedkin, in “The Boys in the Band” and “Bug,” as well as Robert Altman with “Streamers,” “Secret Honor,” and “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”)
In between lies a multitude of options; Edward Albee once joked that the only additions credited screenwriter Ernest Lehman made to Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” were “Let’s go to the roadhouse,” and “Let’s go back from the roadhouse.” Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson never stray too far from Wilson’s recording-studio setting – apart from some prologue material and occasional ventures into the Polish neighborhood that seems none too friendly to the Black visitors – but neither do they make the studio feels enclosing or oppressive; we know it’s hot in there, but only because Ma says so, and demands some ice-cold Cokes.
(Strangely enough, because of various directorial choices, this film might actually play better on Netflix than it would have on the big-screen; TV forces an intimacy and a closeness to the material that the camera isn’t otherwise providing.)
Ultimately, these choices are less important than the pedestal that Wolfe provides for the performances, which are unilaterally stunning. James Dean built a lasting screen legacy out of just three films, and Boseman’s will rest heavily on six: “42,” “Get On Up,” “Marshall,” “Black Panther,” “Da 5 Bloods,” and perhaps his finest performance, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”