Black vs. white. Man vs. woman. New vs. old. North vs. South. There is so much tension wedged into the 90-minute screen adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that when tragedy strikes in the final act, it feels not just predictable but inevitable.

Set in a single afternoon in 1927 Chicago, the film is impeccably directed by George C. Wolfe, co-produced by Denzel Washington, and adapted by screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson. It’s part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” ten plays dramatizing the African American experience in ten different decades. Ma Rainey is the only one not set in Pittsburgh, Wilson’s hometown. It’s also the only one that draws inspiration from a historic figure.

Gertrude Pridgett was born in the 1880s and began to perform as a young teen in talent shows, at the First African…

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