When Chadwick Boseman died this past summer, we heard that he had one performance left in the can, a starring role in a film version of August Wilson’s Tony-winning play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Last month, the word started to leak out that his performance was indeed great. I was skeptical, but only because I and everyone else wanted so much for that to be true. I was afraid that our grief over his early death might color our judgment. Then I saw the film in question, and from the first moment he appears on screen, you can tell that he has not been oversold. After playing so many heroes over the course of his short career, here he shows you what he’s like outside of that, moving with liquid grace and exuding sexuality, menace, and cocksuredness of a young man who knows exactly how good he is. While he did much the same when he played James Brown in Get On Up, this is a better turn, because it’s in a movie that’s worthy of it. Amid this cursed pandemic, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opens this week in the Cinemark Theatres in Mansfield and North East Mall before it comes to Netflix. If you want to say farewell to this actor at the cineplex, you can, and it will be worth it.
He plays Levee Green, a trumpeter with dreams of leading his own band. On a hot and sticky day in 1927, he’s at a recording studio in Chicago as a session musician for Ma Rainey, the real-life singer known as the Mother of the Blues (Viola Davis). While her diva-like antics cause numerous delays at the session, Levee clashes with his fellow musicians — trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) — because he’s a hothead who looks down on the “jug band music” he’s playing for Ma and believes he can play the dance-oriented music that the young listeners want.
Director George C. Wolfe is a giant of the theatrical world, and while I haven’t been a fan of his sporadic previous efforts as a film director (Nights in Rodanthe), his work here does not feel stagey. The action moves from the studio into the city outside without feeling forced. Wolfe and sometime collaborating writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson add a wicked twist to Wilson’s play with the very last shot, which shows that for all of Ma’s tantrums and threats to make sure that the white record executives pay her handsomely, she’s still being screwed over. This is produced by Denzel Washington, who was behind the film version of Wilson’s Fences, and if that means we’re in for movies of all 10 of the plays in the playwright’s Pittsburgh Cycle, I’m all for it, especially if the filmmaking and acting are up to the standard of what we’ve seen.
The character of Ma Rainey could easily come across as too much on the big screen, but Davis cannily underplays, issuing her demands and edicts about running the band from a drunken haze that she can snap out of without warning. Domingo, a steadying presence in films such as Selma and If Beale Street Could Talk, does the same as a bandleader who connects with Ma personally like the other musicians can’t.
Even so, your eyes are ineluctably drawn to Boseman’s Levee, never more so than in a showpiece monologue describing the horrific violence that befell his family in Georgia and how it has defined his life. To counteract this heaviness, Boseman captures the character’s lighter side, executing some nifty dance moves to show off the new pair of shoes that the sharply dressed Levee is so proud of, having paid the exorbitant sum of $11 for them. Boseman makes the trumpet player into a mythic figure, seething at God for failing to protect his family or Black Americans from the white man’s predations. For all his awareness of the racial prejudice around him, Levee still thinks that his musical skill creates opportunities for him. When those are taken away, it drives him to rage and the act of violence that gives this story its tragic power. A man who possesses a rare talent sees himself become yet another crime statistic, and white America will make sure the music plays on without him. The achievement of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Chadwick Boseman is to make sure that we don’t forget his name or the actor portraying him.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on August Wilson’s play. Rated R.