When word broke that Chadwick Boseman had died of cancer on Aug. 28, 2020, the world gasped in shock. Boseman was riding high, with his marvelous work on “Black Panther” catapulting him to global stardom. Then word came that he had a final movie in the can, a version of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
The film was guaranteed to be a hit, with viewers sure to watch if only to pay tribute to a fine actor and, by all accounts, an even finer person. Fortunately, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a worthy legacy. Boseman leads a great cast in a terrific film — and Boseman’s performance has been sweeping awards.
“Ma Rainey” is one of Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” 10 plays that examine the Black experience in each decade of the 20th century.
The film opens with Jazz/Blues singer Ma Rainey’s backing musicians waiting on her arrival at a recording studio. Cutler (Colman Domingo) is the leader of the group. He knows what Ma wants and is content to pull his paycheck and do whatever Ma wants. He knows he has a good gig and has no ambition for more. He is joined by bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman). It is a settled combo, and they are content to live in Ma’s shadow for the security it brings. They are jobbing musicians with no real ambition for creativity — they know their place.
The easy atmosphere is punctuated by the arrival of trumpeter Levee (Boseman), who is lean and hungry for better things. He is not content with being a backup musician. He has his own arrangements, which Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the record producer, encourages, and he is going to be a star in his own right. He has bought a pair of $11 shoes, and he is just waiting for his moment. Working for Ma is nothing more than a stepping stone for his ambition.
It is hard to look at Boseman’s gaunt physique and wonder if it is the result of his cancer, but it just adds to Boseman’s impressive acting chops. Levee is lean, hungry and desperate. He is not about to spend years paying his dues. He wants what he wants now — it’s his time and no one will stop him. Unlike the other musicians, he sees Ma’s style of music as a relic.
When Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), nephew and girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) in tow, finally arrives at the recording studio on a hot afternoon she immediately exerts her power. This is a man’s world — and a white man’s, at that — and Ma knows she has one weapon, her talent. She exercises her control by delaying recording until she is good and ready. Ma Rainey was real character, emphasis on character, and Davis portrays her as a seething ball of anger and resentment. If anyone is to be taken advantage of, it is Ma who is doing the taking.
She uses everything at her disposal to grab power from “the man.” She wants a coke and puts everything on hold (time is money) until her put-upon manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) takes care of her needs. It is not a stretch to suggest that Irvin is Ma’s servant, certainly in the way he nervously runs around trying to avoid her admonishments. The relationship subverts traditional black and white relationships of the time period.
This is Boseman’s final performance and probably his best. He has swept the acting awards this season, but this is no posthumous pity award. He is mesmerizing. Where Ma’s anger is smoldering and controlled, Levee is high energy, with all his pent-up frustrations bubbling inside. Boseman’s Levee is literally on the verge of breaking.
Davis is excellent, as usual, and with two supporting Oscars already to her name, it would not be a surprise if she picks up a lead statuette, although she is not as clear a favorite as Boseman. Davis is a painted goddess in her mind, with her garish makeup and gold teeth. She is larger than life and she wants everyone to know it. It’s not just Irvin that feels her disdain. When we see her leave her segregated hotel, she scowls at the other residents who she knows look down on her.
Both Levee and Ma are fighting the white man in their own ways, as opposed to the seemingly get-along attitudes of Cutler, Slow Drag and Toledo. Cutler and the boys act as a Greek chorus watching the battle between old (Ma) and new (Levee) gods. Cutler is religious but Levee is no god-fearing man (leading to an epic argument where we see the pain that drives his swagger). These three wise men have seen it all before, and Toledo especially has words of wisdom for Levee, but Levee does not, or cannot, understand what he is being told, accusing Toledo of just pandering to the white man.
Wilson’s play is magnificent and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson does a great job adapting the script. Director George C. Wolfe allows the camera to linger when the words or silent looks need to be allowed to tell the story.
Set in the 1920s, when America was looking to the future post WWI, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” lets us know there was still a war raging — between black and white, old and new. It’s a war Ma is not prepared to lose. But can she or Levee really hope to win?
Watching Davis and Boseman do battle on Wilson’s battleground is an absolute delight. And the carnage will stick with you.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is available to stream on Netflix.