This film is based on August Wilson's 1984 play of the same title, and despite energetic camerawork and editing, it very much feels like filmed theatre – at times, anyway.
Set in 1927 Chicago, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom unfolds, mostly in two rooms on one day, during a recording session for real life singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (Viola Davis under heavy makeup). Rainey herself only shows up for a few scenes; most of the time, we're hanging out with her backup band: three older jazz veterans and a hotheaded trumpet player named Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman).
As the four men spar and banter in a dingy basement rehearsal room, this is when Ma Rainey is at its stagiest. Screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson cuts nearly an hour from Wilson's play, yet wouldn't dare tweak the late playwright's dialogue or add much of his own. As a result, the handful of scenes shot outside the recording studio are too obviously designed to "open up" the story for film, without adding anything in the way of plot or character development. Meanwhile, we get the sense that, with Ma and Levee now taking the lion's share of screen time (no surprise, given that they are played by the cast's most famous actors), we're missing a lot of stuff that Wilson wrote for the other guys in the band.
What's interesting is that Davis, alone out of the fine cast, seems to be acting for the camera instead of for the stage. Whenever she appears, with her withering stares and terse dialogue, she grounds the film. This makes Ma Rainey's Black Bottom an odd hybrid: When Davis is around, you're watching a movie. When she's not, you're watching a play. This may stem from how Wilson wrote the character. (I haven't seen or read the play.) Ma's world-weary gravitas contrasts sharply with Levee's itchy ambition. We see that Rainey's apparent diva-ish demands are merely her way of protecting her work and her livelihood from exploitive white showbiz men. Meanwhile, despite a horrific memory of white-on-black violence that has scarred Levee's soul, he still naively believes that it's those same men who will make him a star.
It is, of course, heartbreaking to watch Boseman, who died of colon cancer one year after production, give his final performance. Not just because it reminds us of our loss, but because Levee Green is the kind of flashy role that usually makes an actor's career, whereas in Boseman's case, it caps it. After portraying iconic characters like Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Black Panther, it's poignant that his last role should be a young, hungry nobody like Levee. It's a stagy performance, to be sure, and it lacks the unexpected and eccentric choices that Davis employs, which make a great screen character so memorable. But we now have a record of Chadwick Boseman the theatre actor, and that's a gift in its own right.