Midway through Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the eponymous singer – played by Viola Davis – sits with one of her band members in their studio. She has, until now, been portrayed as a diva: refusing to sing until someone brings her a Coca Cola, demanding that her stuttering nephew introduce the recording. Yet in this scene, something shifts. “White folks try to be put out with you all the time,” she says. “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice”.

Though it might initially present as a musical biopic, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is –  at its core – a study of the relationship between art and commodification, and the ways in which this intersects with America’s exploitation of Black culture. Adapted from the 1982 August Wilson play of the same name, the action takes place over a single afternoon, as tensions simmer between Ma, her band, and her producers in a sweltering Chicago studio.

The script is indisputably powerful – although some of the monologues stagnate slightly on screen – but Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom belongs to its actors, in particular Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, who plays her erratic trumpeter Levee. Davis embodies Ma with mesmerising sensuality: sweat-soaked and bedazzled and slurping Coca Cola, her unflinching presence refuses the historic silencing that Ma experienced. And then there is Boseman’s electric, full-body performance as Levee. Heady ambition and searing frustration find expression in a charismatic, disturbing volatility, underpinned by a vitality that, several months after Boseman’s death, still aches.

The transition from stage to screen might be uneven at times, but there is a theatricality woven throughout Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that captures the simultaneous energy and claustrophobia that dog Ma and her band. And when the spotlight turns to Davis and Boseman, the results are hypnotic.



CAST: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo

DIRECTOR: George C. Wolfe

WRITERS: Ruben Santiago-Hudson (screenplay by), August Wilson (based on the play written by)

SYNOPSIS: In a hot Chicago recording studio, long-simmering tensions erupt between blue singer Ma Rainey, her band, and her controlling producers.