August Wilson's 1984 play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is, to my mind, one of the best American plays from the latter half of the 20th Century. I have not, of course, read all of them, and I have seen even fewer, but still, we're talking about a towering piece of theater from a formidable talent, which inaugurated the great project of his career, the ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle, each play set in a different decade of the century, each touching upon a different aspect of African-American life. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the only play in the cycle not set in Pittsburgh (it's set in Chicago), takes place in 1927, and over the course of one tumultuous afternoon recording a blues album, it examines the tensions between the first Black recording star, Ma Rainey herself, and the hungry young bluesman Levee. Tensions that play out on gender, class, and talent lines, as well as the tensions between both of them and the white record label executive and studio owner who have both all of the power and none of the authority, in odd ways. It's a snapshot of African-American culture right at a moment when the phrase "African-American culture" is proving to be insufficient to describe the fault lines that have been generated by the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and the heretofore unimaginable rise of a Black intellectual bourgeoisie, all of it wrapped inside torrents of vibrant period dialogue that render the entire conflict between Ma and Levee as a rhetorical battle.

It's my pick for the best play of the Pittsburgh Cycle (with the caveat that I have not read them all, and I have seen none of them staged) and an electrifying piece of writing in every way, bristling with ideas, madly in love with the language, brilliantly describing cavernous subterranean character details in the briefest splashed of detail. It's one of those plays that I suspect is so good that as long as you fill it out with a cast that's at least slightly talented, it's literally impossible to turn it into something bad, and of course all of these words up to this point have been getting us to the new Netflix-produced adaptation of the play which is attempting to prove my suspicions correct. Because it has a cast that's definitely more than slightly talented, and it is also a bizarrely horrible piece of filmmaking, with director George C. Wolf, screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, and editor Andrew Mondshein having apparently formed some kind of nightmarish death pact to do everything in their power to rob the play of its beauty and power.

And sure enough, they haven't, though it's a close call. And for the first few minutes, I was absolutely certain that I was face-to-face with the impossible, a truly shitty version of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: the film has a couple of tacked-on scenes and a montage that come before the beginning of Wilson's play, and there's not a second of any of it that's any good. Most of the times the film attempts to "open up" the play, it goes hellaciously wrong, in fact, even if it's just for the length of a few seconds of an exterior shot of a Chicago El train, to serve as a scene transition. Because it's a very stupid scene transition, one that has fuck-all to do with anything else going on in the movie, and not even really necessary. But I was speaking of the opening, which bogs everything down in context that doesn't actually contextualise anything; it shows us Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) performing her Black Bottom in a Southern club, and I guess if we had to come up with a narrative justification, it's so we can see how rapturously her audience in this venue loves her. I think the actual reason is to get Davis into the movie sooner, even if it yields nothing else to do so.

Then the action shifts to the exterior streets of Chicago, and here Ma Rainey proves to be the most Netflix-looking piece of shiny digital shit that I have ever seen on Netflix. I imagine that the actors were almost certainly standing in front of actual sets, given that it's just bare brick walls, and yet somehow, between the glossy emptiness of the camera and the simply ludicrious quanitity of lush sun-yellow color grading, it very much looks like they have been green-screened into an animated environment, and they themselves have been painted with a thin coat of CGI vaseline. It gets less horrendous once the action moves inside, where it spends nearly all of its time, but this is still an aggressively ugly motion picture, with a sleek sheen over every surface that completely obliterates any remote sense of this being actual Chicago in the actual 1920s, in an actual run-down studio that's the best place even a woman as formidable as Ma Rainey can get, given her skin color. It all feels like a set - a plasticky, freshly-painted set. Honestly, if not Ann Roth's florid, theatrical costuming, and the noh mask of make-up on Davis's face there'd basically be no positive visual aspects to the film at all. Certainly, nothing about Wolfe's blocking, which puts no effort into reimagining the space as a real building rather than a theater stage, adds much of anything to the story.

Ah, but the story! All you need is a talented cast, I said, and Ma Rainey has a hell of a good one. Every one of the nine main characters is matched impeccably to its actor - Dusan Brown as Ma's stuttering nephew Sylvester, the recipient of some nepotism designed to show the world Ma's moral fortitude, is particularly excellent - but the play is designed to make Ma and Levee stand out, and they certainly do here. Chadwick Boseman, in the last role he completed before his shockingly young death from cancer, finds a good path through the misdirections written into the role early on, when Levee seems like a shallow, fancy egotist, doing a fine job of seeding the developments of the play's endgame into his interactions with the other musicians, and making easy, organic sense out of the sharp pivots into different tonal registers when the character bursts out speechifying. I confess that I don't think he's transforming the role, necessarily, just executing it the way it wants to be executed, and doing so beautifully. But this is still enough to make for an exciting, righteous characterisation.

Davis is transforming the role a little bit, I think, or at least exaggerating its latent qualities into arch self-conscious performativity. She's not playing a natural person, but a collection of strategies for artistic, business, and personal domination that cover Ma like a cloak. As a veteran of the only other noteworthy Wilson screen adaptation, 2016's Fences, Davis is in familiar territory, and she swims through the rampaging dialogue with ease, while turning her whole body into a series of severe angles, inhabiting the frame as a geometric object around which the rest of the cast must accommodate itself. It's an imposing, and at times very strange performance, one that uses the historical Ma Rainey as a reference point but never pinions itself by insisting on evoking "the truth" of a real figure; Davis's Ma has her own truths, which involve asserting her will in all interactions, even if it involves being a petulant brat in order to do so.

This is certainly enough to make Ma Rainey's Black Bottom worth watching, though I wish anybody but the actors was doing anything that would make this a good piece of art in its own right, rather than leeching all of its goodness secondhand from the play. That this will be, for many people, the first (and only) exposure to the text is deeply sad; beyond the artless hideousness of the production, it has been trimmed down enough to lose some of the moody, rhetorical thickness of the play, making the slow burn of Levee's indignation and frustration come up much too quickly. And then there's that catastrophe of an opening, and a very flat-footed new final scene that makes subtext text and does so at the risk of making the entire play about social forces per se, and not the individual humans being acted upon by those social fores.

This is all to say: it's a bad version of a phenomenal play, and only the potency of Wilson's words and the stormy commitment of Davis, Boseman, and the rest to bring those words to life with maximal humanity keeps the film watchable at all. Because it certainly is watchable. This is the least that any production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom ought to be aiming for, but at least it didn't miss that target, like it seems for a few horrifying moments early on that it might.