If 2020 has been a calamitous time for the big-screen experience, it has neatly turned into a boom era for a curious cinematic subgenre: the play-to-screen adaptation. Following this fall’s The Boys in the Band, but arriving just ahead of One Night in Miami, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes August Wilson’s acclaimed 1982 play and reconfigures it for the big screen – or any size screen that you happen to have access to.
Following one blues singer (Viola Davis) and her four-piece band’s long, turbulent recording session in 1927 Chicago, director George C. Wolfe’s adaptation is both a five-pronged character study and a blistering treatise on the Black American experience. The film also features an incendiary lead performance from Chadwick Boseman as the hothead trumpeter Levee, in his final on-screen role.
Ahead of Ma Rainey’s Netflix premiere this Friday, the Tony Award-winning Wolfe spoke with The Globe and Mail about the art of storytelling no matter the medium, and what it was like to collaborate with the late, great Boseman.
How did you and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson reconfigure August Wilson’s work to make it less a piece of theatre, more of a film?
You know, I didn’t think about it as a play at all. People keep asking, “How do you get it from stage to film?” I thought about the material just as a film. You go inside the text as you would on any script, and then you try to figure out what’s there and what needs to be compressed, you think about the visuals, you think about that sense of claustrophobia. I also wanted to explore Chicago as a city, which is a very alien place for Ma and her band. And the play is set during the winter, so I thought that the intensity of the summer, the unforgivingness of urban landscapes in the heat, was important. It’s painting the world.
When you’re painting that world, though, do you find your approach is the same as a director, whether you’re working on the stage or behind a camera?
At the core you’re working with actors. It’s just painting with different toys. In theatres, though, there’s a proscenium, and you have to craft that. A film is in many senses just an endless series of prosceniums that you’re crafting. I’d call myself a storyteller. I don’t go into this existential anguish about switching mediums. It’s just about making the audience feel in command of where they are, because if they do, they end up surrendering to their emotions.
I’m curious about the rehearsal period, which was for two weeks in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh. That seems like an extended amount of time for a film …
It’s not generous! It should’ve been longer! I’m not sure where this antithesis of rehearsal in films started. It’s a chance for everybody to be put in command of their jobs, and build a sense of camaraderie. Everybody gets ahead of the work and can proceed in a much more playful and emotionally exciting way.
Looking back on Chadwick Boseman’s performance today, were there moments for you that in retrospect align with his struggle with cancer?
No, no, no. Absolutely not. Not for one second. Not for one second! There was a scene where, after Levee gets fired up, Chadwick breaks through this door and we did five or six takes, and after the first take the door was so severely damaged that I was trying to get him to hold back. So I was in the presence of an actor who was approaching his work with extraordinary ferocity and emotional commitment and charm and truth.
After we finished, I spoke to him about the future and projects he was working on. So the sadness I feel, which is very real – it’s the loss of a person who had become a friend. But I feel blessed that I got the chance to work with, and spend a glorious amount of time with, a brilliant and commanding actor.
I read that this film has been done since the summer, and you were pushing to speed up its release so it could get out during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. Are you glad you ended up waiting?
Everybody who cares about the world wanted to join in and have their voices heard or try to offer something. So because I had spent the whole year working on this thing, it was what I had to offer. It was the impulse of an intensely impassioned, angry, engaged citizen of the world. But realizing it now, it’s still going to affect people and arouse conversation. So you know, I got over it. It’s fine!
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available to stream on Netflix starting Dec. 18
This interview has been condensed and edited
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