Though it might seem like the perfect source material, adapting a stage play for the screen is no easy task. Or, rather, it shouldn’t be. Being written to be performed might make the dialogue easily translatable to film, but the storytelling targets a live audience sitting in front of a stage that changes only superficially. Screenplays, meanwhile, are tailored to a camera that can shoot from any angle, and an editing process that can splice scenes from multiple locations together after-the-fact. The urge to recreate a theatrical experience can be strong when adapting a play, and there are plenty of great movies that limit locations or unfold in long takes, but the play already exists in that format. Any stage-to-screen adaptation should be looking to answer one question: why not just film a live performance?
For Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by George C. Wolfe and based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, that question is a bit of a struggle. The story takes place over the course of one afternoon in 1920s Chicago, as temperamental blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band gather at the studio to record her songs. As she battles with her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), the older band members try to temper the ambitions of Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a talented young trumpeter looking to challenge Ma’s authority by writing his own music. Their lengthy discussions touch on issues of race, trauma, and fame, and though they all disagree on how to handle being Black performers in a White-run industry, they are united by a loving need to bring their music into the world.
Cinematically, Wolfe’s adaptation seems to have a lot going for it at the beginning, welcoming the audience into a beautifully filmed, musical world with black-and-white photos that slowly come to life. Those flourishes prove rare, and unfortunately so, because they really work. Most of the film is instead a stream of dialogues and monologues shot mostly in two rooms that are overwhelmingly theatrical in their sound and structure, and it feels visually trapped by its format, especially when the early shots of period Chicago were so engrossing. That said, the writing is both engaging, thought-provoking, and thematically rich, executing the delicate transitions between its various tones excellently— there are worse things to do than lean on the writing of a Pulitzer-winning playwright. But that essential question still hangs in the air, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom suffers for it.
The only possible answer it offers, to my delight, is in the camera’s ability to capture the nuances of powerful performances. A true two-hander, Davis and Boseman are both given great material to work with, and Wolfe often studies them in close-up at their most explosive moments. The opportunity to watch them manifest the complex emotions driving characters that put up performative fronts is a gift, especially considering Boseman’s tragic passing in August. This is his last film role, and it could very well win him a posthumous Oscar. When paired with his appearance in Da 5 Bloods, his remarkably strong 2020 makes it even easier to turn the loss of a great talent into a celebration of his legacy on screen, and that alone is worth putting on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the next available opportunity.