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This be an empty world without the blues.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
(2020)

(SPOILERS) Is there any point making a movie from a play if you’re unable to overcome its essential staginess? At their best, even confined productions can fire on all cylinders – 12 Angry Men, Glengarry Glen Ross – but a director without the necessary acumen, or perhaps motivation, may be left high and dry. George C Wolfe comes from the theatre but has a decade and a half of film direction behind him, yet it never feels as if he has a firm grip on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Ma Rainey: They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they want is my voice.

But never mind. A prestige picture is a prestige picture, and we’re currently at a point where the period-piece African-American experience, for reasons that are less than organic, is squarely in the quota-led, outrage-averse sights of awards ceremonies everywhere – even the Golden Globes. As opposed to, you know, the Merchant Ivory fare of old. In some respects, there’s very little difference between them, as both can feel equally mannered and stale, too fixated on the appearances to carry any weight or substance in their own right.

At least this adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play is blessedly short. Fences was more than two hours, and it really felt it; I can still feel it now, four years on. Denzel Washington, being to all outward appearances a decent chap and a bit of a stage hound himself, has taken on the mantle of curating Wilson’s work for the big screen (or flat one). Which, let’s face it, likely would never see the cinematic light of day were it not for “auteur” havens like Netflix willing to fritter money away in order to keep a star sweet (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom certainly won’t have been a ratings juggernaut). That, and diversity-rich fare is a sensible means for snapping up Oscar nominations. And Netflix, despite negligible quality control, is desperate for such respected status.

The essential tension of the material – renowned stuck-in-her-ways blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) refusing to give ground to unsympathetic white management or upstart with-it band member Levee (Chadwick Boseman) – is reasonably promising. Occasionally, the music provides a distraction – stammering Sylvester, played by Dusan Brown, getting his intro right after numerous takes – but mostly, it’s merely a backdrop to the studied mechanics of character badinage and conflict. This varies from the downright tedious – the opening passage between band members Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) is a woefully slow drag, and only becomes more obvious in its laboured construction when Levee arrives – to overwritten. Overwriting can be a boon if there’s accompanying nuance and rhythm, but scenes of Cutler railing at Levee’s blasphemy and Levee’s lunging at him with Chekov’s Knife are more clumsy and coerced than considered.

Ma Rainey, meanwhile, is a mire of OTT makeup, explosive ire and wallowing insecurity, with Davis apparently incapable of finding a sympathetic soul anywhere beneath. Ma’s acutely aware of the avarice at play in the limited respect shown by producer Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) while lashing out at anyone encroaching on her territory (Levee, whom she eventually fires for playing too many notes). There are scenes clearly designed to make us empathise in Ma Rainey’s Fat Ass, but everything about Davis’ big loud caricature of performance is too broad and rackety to make us care.

Chadwick, punchy and wired, is clearly giving his all, but Levee’s cocky (or red roosterish) talent with a tragic temper is nothing very singular. Boseman also looks transparently unwell, so presumably that’s sufficient reason to give him the Oscar as well as the Globe (struggle against adversity and untimely death and virtue signalling make for a potent brew). The final act of eruptive violence feels no less than a tired dramatist’s last resort to ensure the audience leaves the theatre with just the necessary spirit of contemplative despair at it all (it’s manipulative, but hey, what isn’t?) Wolfe’s embroidered ending – absent from the play – whereby the songs Sturdyvant bought cheaply from Levee as unusable are now gracing white artists, is there to underline what a fiend whitey is. This feels like an unnecessary hammer blow, but nothing we’ve seen here has been subtle. Except, maybe Ma’s curiously chaste behaviour with regard to her attentions towards Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), in direct contrast to Levee’s decidedly-not-so ones towards the same.

Indeed, the way Wolfe shoots, there’s only really a semblance of character when someone is speaking, making it a miracle Turman makes any impression. Wilson’s play was written 55 years after the period of its setting, which means it’s as ornately inclined towards period artifice (although, this is the height of authenticity sat next to Aaron Sorkin’s flashy but phoney The Trial of the Chicago 7). As a consequence, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom often resembles an over-inflected Coen brothers parody of period plays (“I'm blowin' out of here, blowin' for good. I'm kissin' it all goodbye, these four stinkin' walls, the six flights up, the el that roars by at three A.M. like a cast-iron wind. Kiss 'em goodbye for me, Maury! I'll miss 'em – like hell I will!”) And that’s without the creaky theatrical mechanics Wolfe contrives to emphasise (count the times everything stops dead so a character can deliver an aching monologue).

Levee: What the hell do I care about some bad luck? Hell, I eat it every day for breakfast!

Wolfe is barely there as a director, which if Hitchcock’s dilemma with Juno and the Paycock is anything to go by, he shouldn’t be blamed for. Nevertheless, we can see from the few exterior scenes how acutely incapable he is of injecting any energy in the proceedings that doesn’t derive (a) from the actors and (b) from the music. Obama liked the film, apparently. No word on Michael’s verdict. Indeed, almost everyone appears to love it. Except reliable Armond White claiming (amusingly) “They’ve turned August Wilson into an irate Tyler Perry”. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the very definition of inert. Perhaps the underwhelming material plays better on the stage. Still, it’s getting the awards recognition, and that’s what counts. I’m sure Denzel will see to it the other eight entries The Pittsburgh Cycle are “staged”, and Netflix will doubtless be equally keen to get in on the Oscar bait next time as well.

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