Review: Chadwick Boseman leaves it all on the screen in electric 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'
Courtesy of Netflix
Running at a breakneck and energetic pace, the period musical drama “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” never holds back, from Viola Davis boisterous screen presence to Chadwick Boseman’s earth shattering final performance, everything is left on screen in George C. Wolfe’s incredible cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s classic.
Yes, Davis has the titular role and she’s a marvel in a way audiences have never seen the Oscar winner, but Boseman, in probably his best performance, makes “Ma Rainey” his own as a naive and selfless cornet player trying to accomplish his dreams. Wolfe, being a Tony Award-winning director, doesn’t shy away from themes that made Wilson’s 1982 play sing. This adaptation explores racial and sexual tensions, though it’s mostly about a group of ambitious musicians battling their egos.
Set on a hot Chicago day in 1927, “Black Bottom” sees this quartet come together for an afternoon recording session where emotions and personality clash. Like the staged play, for 90 uninterrupted minutes, Wolfe keeps it tight inside the studio walls where characters are left to battle their own wits, charms and frustrations.
The band arrives early, but everybody is waiting for Ma Rainey (Davis), including her apologetic manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and gruffled producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). Levee (Boseman) is the rambunctious bass player whose unsolicited arrangement of Ma’s signature tune creates friction among the group and is writing original songs to record. Fellow bandmates - pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman), trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo - a stage veteren who never gets enough credit for being incredible) and base player Slow Drag (Micheal Potts) - steadily tow the line between Levee and Ma but keeping the former in check is easier said than done.
The early exposition gives Boseman plenty of time to chew up the screen and deliver impassioned monologues about his childhood and purpose in life. It’s heartbreaking the amount of charm and charisma one man can radiate knowing he was taken from this world too soon, but the late Boseman leaves it all on the table and it's not hyperbolic to suggest this might be his crowning achievement.
Yet Viola Davis is still a national treasure and “Ma Rainey” kicks into gear as soon as the larger than life blues singer makes her grand entrance. It’s refreshing to watch a Black woman, in 1927, make demands and have them executed. If she asks for a Coca-Cola, by all means you better have a case on standby, and when Ma makes it clear her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) will do a voiceover intro, don’t ask questions - just nod and say yes. Tempers flare as Ma consistently holds up the recording process until her strict requests are met, and the creative battle that ensues with the white guys running the session does little for morale but hot damn if it ain’t fun to watch.
Ma runs the show and every meticulous detail of her image is for performance, and Davis brings roaring life to the character. She even lends her vocals to the song “Those Dogs of Mine” while other tracks are dubbed by R&B legend Maxayn Lewis.
Ma was a real-life “Mother of the Blues” who bulldozed anyone in her path and didn’t fall for silly tricks. Her respect and power is the perfect counterpoint for Levee, who is struggling to earn credibility in a profession that not only exploits African-Americans, but undermines them at every corner. Ma knows how to play the game, if only Levee could see the writing on the wall.
Of course, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is overshadowed by the sudden death of Boseman who embodies Levee with the same unwavering commitment of Black Panther or Jackie Robinson. It’s even more gut wrenching when you see his thin body and realize this final role was filmed during a tough battle with colon cancer. Boseman played each role like it was his last, and the icon leaves behind a legacy that will inspire generations. Movies - and the world - will never be the same without him.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM is now playing in select theaters and debuts on Netflix December 18th.