Reel Dad: Viola Davis commands the screen in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

The lady owns any space. When she walks onto a stage, or down a street, she has music on her mind and fairness in her soul. There’s no room for the incidental. She has fought too many battles to own today. And, because she proudly wears her scars, she won’t let anyone take her back one step.

The movie adaptation of August Wilson’s play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” transports us to a hot summer afternoon in Chicago in 1927. A popular Black blues singer arrives at a recording studio with specific expectations for how she and her entourage should be treated. Her nephew, despite a stutter, should perform in one song; the musical arrangements, although considered by some in her band to be dated, should be followed without question; ice-cold bottles of Coca-Cola should be provided and all payments must be in cash. This lady she has endured too much to bend. She rarely feels a luxury to relax. Or trust.

Wilson’s work - part of his 10-play examination of the Black experience of the 20th century - filled theaters in the 1980s with soaring words and rich characters. While a piece that relies on dialogue can be challenging to film, “Ma Rainey” finds an ideal director from the theater, Tony-winning George C. Wolfe. Working with a strong cast, and rethinking the piece for the screen, Wolfe transforms a play filled with things to say into a movie brimming with lessons to teach. Like the best of film directors, he makes us feel we are there.

As with much of Wilson’s work, “Ma Rainey” dares to expose how anger intensified in the Black community for generations. Wolfe uses his camera to explore how Ma uses her gestures for more than enhancing her performances. She lets us in to what she has experienced over the years. So, when a brash young musician in her band dares to challenge Ma’s sacrifices, Wolfe lets the camera study how the lady must confront the choices she has made to create the success she enjoys. The lens examines how, for this man, the time is now; anyone who stands in his way, including Ma, can get out of the way.

By giving the film a strong visual sense, and deftly tightening the dialogue, Wolfe examines the souls behind the words, letting us see the intense reactions the words generate, enabling us to feel how these people react. And he knows how to work with actors. The late Chadwick Boseman is, simply, a revelation as the trumpet player Levee in a rich performance that reinforces the tragedy of the actor’s premature passing. Viola Davis reinvents herself, again, in a triumphant portrayal of a woman who refuses to apologize for the fights she has endured. Although not previously known as a singer, Davis not only makes the musical sequences work, she uses each song to reveal a woman behind the voice.

Some movies stay with us. After watching “Ma Rainey,” I immediately wanted to return for another visit. This lady has so much to say, from the past, that can help us understand what happens in our world too often today.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” runs 1 hour, 34 minutes, and is rated R for “language, some sexual content and brief violence.” The film is streaming on Netflix.

Summary: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Content: High. This adaptation of August Wilson's play preserves the words from the stage while using the camera to intensify their impact.

Entertainment: High. Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe creates a beautiful film that pays tribute to Wilson's work by making it visually accessible to a wide audience.

Message: High. Rich performances from Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman use Wilson's words to create real people who offer commanding views of a moment from our nation's past.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to learn more about how conditions from 100 years ago continue to impact how we live today can be welcome.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Sharing this film with older children can offer an opportunity to discuss how the world has, and has not, changed since 1927.