Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ★★★½


[Malickian whisper]

Masterful play I'd read but never seen staged, brought to life by a superb cast.

Firm conviction that theater and cinema are fundamentally irreconcilable.

Always you wrestle inside me.

So far, August Wilson adaptations are mostly winning this battle. Ma Rainey is a smidge less great (as a text) than Fences, in my opinion, and Wolfe's efforts to open it up—just by moving out onto the street occasionally, plus an invented Georgia prologue—look downright amateurish. Denzel Washington has a basic feel for the medium, born of decades in front of the camera; Wolfe, a legendary stage director, simply does not...yet he's also weirdly reluctant to import theatrical conventions that do translate, e.g. fading to black. Instead, we get hacky "transitions" like Levee's maniacal "Your God ain't shit!" outburst being capped by a sharp cut to the L tracks and a train rumbling overhead. But while this isn't much of a film, it's still a solid showcase for Wilson's singular verbal pyrotechnics, lit up by one hell of an ensemble. I had trouble imagining Boseman as Levee (perhaps because his T'Challa was so stolid), and thus churlishly assumed that people gushing about his performance were unconsciously motivated by grief—but no, he's every inch the cocky dynamo that Wilson envisioned, even coming across as a good decade younger than his 43 years. So damn great that watching him was almost painful. What a loss. Thankfully we still have Davis, who understands what real power entails and delivers many of Ma's most furious remarks in a low, throwaway mumble. And Turman and Domingo, both of whom landed on my Skandies Supporting Actor shortlist (which is now 30% this movie, Boseman included; I consider Ma Rainey an ensemble piece with no true leads, even if a couple of the roles are a tad more prominent than the rest; see also e.g. Reservoir Dogs, in which one could promote Keitel and/or Roth I guess but nah). Wish I could have seen these actors perform Wilson's character-defining monologues onstage, where they wouldn't feel slightly unnatural—Turman sells the hell out of the leftovers speech (trimmed though it is), but Wolfe's decision to make it a sort of soliloquy, practically spoken to the camera, feels at odds with the band's more naturalistic badinage. I applaud the film's new epilogue*, however, which admittedly makes needlessly explicit something we already understood but does so with memorable visual flair. The whiteness is blinding.

* Wilson's original ending, it now occurs to me, delivers more or less what I wanted from Parasite. A tragedy of rage misplaced.