August Wilson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and one of the best-known chroniclers of Black American life. His masterwork is the ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, which covers every decade of the twentieth century. This is a remarkable achievement, given that Wilson died at the young age of 60 (in 2005). One of the plays in the cycle – Fences – was adapted into the Oscar-winning film of the same name in 2016, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Now, an adaptation of another play from the cycle – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – has come to Netflix (neatly timed for awards season, of course). It also stars Viola Davis as the real-life blues singer Ma Rainey and features Chadwick Boseman’s last role. To coincide with the release of the film, Netflix has also put out a documentary, Giving Voice, about the August Wilson Monologue Competition, which sees High School students competing for the chance to perform on Broadway.
As a theatre nerd, I am more predisposed to films adapted from plays than most. I am happy to see three high-profile stage adaptations this year – Ma Rainey, The Father and One Night in Miami. A common criticism is that they are frequently confined to one room for long periods, but that rarely bothers me. The sense of the characters being trapped in a single room actually works well in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – the majority of the film takes place in a rehearsal room, where Ma Rainey’s band bicker and tensions boil over. The only time it really leaves this room is for a bigger studio space, where attempts are made to record an album. In both of these spaces, there are symbols of frustration – Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) has a nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) – a boy with a stutter – and she is insisting that he introduce the titular song. In the rehearsal room, there is a closed door that Levee (Chadwick Boseman) gets fixated on, he believes it’s been moved or that it was once open and lead somewhere.
Levee is the main source of antagonism in the band, which is also made up of Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). Levee is ambitious, he has written songs and believes that Ma’s manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and the studio owner Studyvant (Jonny Coyne) – the white gatekeepers – will lead to his success beyond the band. Levee clashes with Cutler and Ma herself and gets several monologues, which virtually guarantee a (sadly posthumous) Oscar nomination for Boseman. Domingo is also impressive as Cutler – he is having a strong year, with Euphoria and Zola.
Ma has a girlfriend – Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), presumably loosely based on Bessie Smith (who the real-life Ma Rainey was rumoured to have a relationship with) and I wish this had been explored more, as Ma Rainey seems to have had a lot of power for a Black woman of the time. She frequently threatens to walk out on her contract with Irvin and Studyvant, claiming she can go straight on tour to make money and she is paid many times the wages given to the men in her band for the session. She uses her diva powers to be fairly open about Dussie, as well as refusing to start recording before she gets coke (the drink, not the drug) and insisting on this issue with her nephew. Levee messes around with Dussie, which is just one of the many issues that leads to problems with both Ma and his bandmates.
The rare moments where the film does leave the studio and rehearsal setting are highlights – a black-and-white title sequence (for want of a better word) gives some context to the Chicago-setting and at the end of Toledo’s speech “the coloured man IS the leftovers” there is a montage of images. When Levee does finally manage to break through the closed door, there is a dizzying shot of him looking up, surrounded by the steep walls of a tiny alley. Levee meets a dead end, a wall is put up in front of him to stop him from progressing – obviously a symbol of the treatment of Black people but also Levee’s self-sabotage.
On the other hand, Giving Voice is explicitly about a programme which opens doors to young people and gives them opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. The High School students come from twelve cities in the US, most are POC and many come from schools that don’t have arts or theatre classes. For most of those who do get the opportunity to go to New York at the end, it’s their first time travelling away from their home city. It is moving to see them engage with Wilson’s plays, which can be set 50 or 100 years ago and make extremely personal connections to the material. Many of them see their mothers, aunts, brothers or themselves in the characters. The documentary gives limited context on Wilson, but I guess there are other places to find out more about him. Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and Stephen McKinley Henderson contribute and all speak movingly about Wilson’s work.
While the acting is the one aspect of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that everyone is discussing (as awards season heats up) I do actually think it’s a good adaptation by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and the direction by George C. Wolfe also sets it apart from its roots on stage. The costume design by Ann Roth is another highlight worth noting. As a double-bill with the Giving Voice documentary, it really emphasises what an incredible artist August Wilson was and that his legacy as one of the great playwrights is secured.