Saturday 19 December 2020

On demand: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Having discovered the work of August Wilson via Denzel Washington's honourable 2016 film of the playwright's Fences, Hollywood now seizes upon Wilson's 1982 opus Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. George C. Wolfe's adaptation - again produced by Washington, this time with Netflix assistance - doesn't go out of its way to fix what clearly wasn't broken when the play was triumphantly revived at the National Theatre back in 2016. Although it opens with a light smattering of exteriors locating us in the wilds of Depression-era America, the bulk of its action is confined to one Chicago recording studio, where the eponymous singer - billed as "the Mother of the Blues" and played by Fences holdover Viola Davis - has been dispatched to cut a record with her squabbling back-up band. Initially, we're with the band, spending long enough in their company to notice a marked difference of outlook between slow-and-steady trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), trad in every sense, and the cocky, ambitious horn player Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final role), keen to push this music and himself forwards, even if that means leaving others behind in the dust. Here, then, is one of the forks in the road American popular music had to negotiate in the first half of the last century: play safe in the South, or strike out for new ground - and new sounds - in the North. What Wilson was interested in was the extent to which these journeymen were willing to cut their roots and sell out to the white men in the hope of making a name and career for themselves. They know how fairly those white folks treated their ancestors; the sorry details are right there in the songs they've been hired to perform. We know all about the forgotten men of the blues, left at the roadside. For ninety minutes, Wilson put them front-and-centre, inviting them to relitigate their contracts and their chances. A conversation is thus revived, as well as a play.

Has Ma Rainey's Black Bottom sold out in the course of being steered Netflix-wards? Not noticeably. The film is doubtless slicker and starrier than any previous stage production - with the possible exception of Ryan Murphy, no-one in history has had this much streaming money to throw at a mere play. Yet Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson have preserved Wilson's idiomatic dialogue and acid, biting punchline, and - as in Fences - the performers really do knuckle down. For Davis, typically cast as strong, silent, sensible women, this is a notable change of pace. Her Ma is a committed vulgarian: we get that within seconds of taking in her panda-thick eye shadow and cantilevered cleavage. She has so much metal in her mouth she makes certain rappers seem shy and retiring, and her permanent sheen of sweat suggests a woman running hot both physically and sexually. (And that's before she opens her mouth and starts to belt out her signature filth.) She's a real movie character, in other words - properly three-dimensional - and Davis visibly enjoys working some of her usual subtleties into the corners of such a broad canvas. Ma makes a great show of descending into a hotel lobby with a young man on one arm and her female lover on the other: here, we realise, is a woman actively pursuing scandal, who wants to be seen, in part because she knows how easily her music, her name and perhaps even her very being might otherwise be erased. As she puts it during the recording sessions: "All they want from me is my voice." Wilson troubled to make Ma's manager Irvin (played here by Jeremy Shamos) not some obvious slavedriver, rather a generally amenable soul simply keen to get this show on the road (or on record) - but we're only too aware that he and unsmiling studio boss Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) are here to mine Ma's talent, to produce a product for profits she will as likely never see.

Beyond Davis, the limitations of this adaptation become more apparent. We're offered monologues where a movie would give us dialogue; and Wolfe has to make careful, considered camera movements so as not to trip over the ensemble or back through the wall of a set. Washington's (longer) film of Fences carved out a sense of a whole working neighbourhood, and gestured towards an idea of America. At the end of its 94 minutes, all Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has established is that this one studio might stand for the entertainment industry entire: white men up top, jobbing Black performers pushed down into the basement. (Like Netflix's other big Oscar shot Mank, it's a slightly self-involved project, the work of a cinema that's been forced to examine its own abiding codes and practices - though clearly Wilson was doing so from a more critical standpoint than Fincher père et fils.) Among those performers, Boseman is a real strong point, playing a dangerous live wire, and thereby demonstrating what a versatile actor he could have been, if the fates had permitted. In the middle of a filmed play, here's a real movie actor, one whose energies refused to be contained by marks on a set. (Witness his attempt to bust through a locked door that leads symbolically nowhere.) Another are the sporadic musical interludes, overseen by Bradford Marsalis no less, which speak to a whole other history: were there more of these on stage? The film might have done better to preserve them, if simply to reshape its copious talk. If - in the head-to-head between late 2020 films based on theatrical phenomena - Ma Rainey's Black Bottom plays as less of a night out (or night in) than Thomas Kail's film of Hamilton, that's probably because movies mainly run on the vulgarity of razzle-dazzle, rather than the subtexts Wilson's theatre traded in. It's nevertheless to Wolfe's credit that he tries, within these limited parameters, to give us a little of both.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is now streaming via Netflix.

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