Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Raises the Bar for Stage Adaptations
A common criticism of stage-to-screen adaptations — one that I’m frequently guilty of making — is that the film in question can’t quite break free of the theatre to become something that feels more cinematic. As much as I love live theatre, something can feel slightly off when attempting to transfer that experience to film (though musicals often fare much better than plays), in a way that, for me at least, can distract from the craft and substance on screen.
That being said, I find that vein of criticism (including on my end) tends to underestimate the difficulty in adapting a play for the big screen — the history of such adaptations has perhaps led us to believe that the two mediums are more similar than they really are. Live theatre is simultaneously more intimate and more expansive, constrained in a way a film is not but also shot through with an energy that’s almost impossible to truly replicate. Even the most skilled filmmakers can struggle with theatrical source material, making those who succeed in creating something truly cinematic even more impressive — enter George C. Wolfe and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
It may not be entirely fair to compare Ma Rainey to Fences, but it’s hard not to. Both are recent, high-profile adaptations of plays from August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, but while Denzel Washington’s 2016 effort features masterful acting from Washington and Viola Davis, it simply cannot escape the trap of staginess. To be honest, I expected a similar fate to befall Ma Rainey, but Wolfe (a Tony-winning stage director) and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson (an acclaimed actor, writer, and director of stage and screen) showcase an incredibly impressive understanding of how to make a piece of theatre feel like it was meant for the screen — yes, it still plays like a chamber piece, but a cinematic one.
The keys to this effectiveness are the small but powerful decisions the film makes. The performances are still big, to be sure, but are underplayed just enough to retain their potency without seeming like they’re straining to reach the cheap seats. A smartly roving camera gives a sense of three dimensional location and generates electricity between the actors that bleeds through the screen. Long monologues are well-edited by Wolfe and Andrew Mondshein, cutting early and often enough to push the pace without breaking the spell or losing the emotional weight. It’s not perfect — the nature of the mediums and the source material is such that the particular type of dialogue-based approach that works so well on stage is never going to be a perfect match for film — but it reaches heights you might not expect.
As good as the work behind the camera is, however, I expect the conversation surrounding the film to center almost exclusively on the performances, and I can’t really argue with that. Viola Davis is predictably excellent as the titular blues singer, playing a woman who refuses to change for anyone — she understands her power and celebrity and wields it unabashedly in the face of everyone who might resent her status given her race and gender. But the film belongs to Chadwick Boseman, a towering accomplishment made even more poignant by his untimely passing this year.
As Levee, a trumpeter filled with ambition and pent-up rage, Boseman owns the screen from minute one, with physicality and vocal work that are transformative in the way few actors ever manage to achieve. He plays cockiness and desperation in equally heartrending fashion, a simmering portrait of a man pushed to a breaking point by a world that seems to just not want him, no matter how hard he tries. Boseman leaves behind a legacy that, while far too short, is staggering in its depth, compassion, and humanity; Ma Rainey's Black Bottom will be his last film, but what he brought to the craft will extend far beyond any single performance — even if he did save one of his very best for last.