Review: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Is Chadwick Boseman's Last — and Most Important — Film
Boseman goes head-to-head with Viola Davis in George C. Wolfe's screen version of August Wilson's great play.
You'd be hard-pressed to find better performances this year than those given by Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, premiering on Netflix on December 18. Already the recipient of Oscar buzz, this film adaptation of August Wilson's first Broadway play — directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson — is a blazing thrill, a great but tricky stage work that becomes even more exciting on celluloid. And even if it's not your cup of tea, you won't be able to deny how good the acting is from top to bottom.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom takes place over the course of one afternoon in a sweltering Chicago recording studio in 1927, where Ma, the real-life, trailblazing "Mother of the Blues" herself (Davis), and her band are supposed to be laying down tracks for her new album. She and her entourage are painfully late, giving veteran band members Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) extra time to rehearse in a cramped anteroom.
The close quarters become even tighter with the arrival of the ambitious trumpet player Levee (Boseman), who is determined to modernize the sound of Ma's music, while trying to convince white record producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) to buy his own songs. Levee's bravado runs afoul of everyone, and when Ma, her girlfriend (Taylour Paige), and stuttering nephew (Dusan Brown) finally arrive, tensions are about to boil over.
First performed on Broadway in 1984, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is the only one of Wilson's 10 Century Cycle works to be set in Chicago, long known by music afficionados and laypeople alike as the home of the Blues. It's a drama about power and who gets to exert it — Levee is keenly aware of Ma's upper hand over Sturdyvant and her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), and is determined to harness that strength himself, no matter what the cost. What he doesn't realize, though, is that it's not his world, or Ma's. They're just pawns in a white male chess game.
You'd never know it, but Ma Rainey is, surprisingly, Wolfe's first brush with Wilson, and in an entirely unsurprising result, the match is pretty much fated, especially with Santiago-Hudson's faithful screenplay as his guide. They don't remove the music and theatricality of Wilson's text for the more realistic trappings of the big screen, but enhance it, allowing production designer Mark Ricker to create a looming, almost mythological version of Depression-era Illinois, and costumer Ann Roth to build gorgeous clothes that are straight from period photographs. Tobias Schliessler's sepia-toned cinematography allows you to feel the heat radiating from the surfaces and the beads of sweat dripping down their backs.
It's a transformative performance from longtime Wilson vet Davis — a deliciously imperious turn from a larger-than-life character, and she really sinks her gold teeth into it, relishing every moment she's in frame. But Ma is pretty much a supporting role and is onstage, too, arriving late and leaving long before the curtain comes down. It's Boseman's film, and not just because it's tragically his last. It's Levee's story and his portrayer leaves it all on the line, with an electricity that manifests almost like a halo around him at all times. In a short career of first-rate performances, Boseman tops himself here, building the kind of multifaceted turn that is sure to be studied and talked about for years to come. (The supporting cast, it should be noted, is entirely excellent, too, particularly Turman, who has played his role onstage before, and Domingo, a true asset to everything he's in.)
There's an unfortunate, but important, relevance to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in 2020. It's a portrait of Black excellence thwarted, and at the end of a year that found the world taking to the streets to protest systemic and pervasive racism, the themes of Wilson's seminal text are more pertinent than ever. It may have the dubious footnote of being Chadwick Boseman's last picture, but in a way, it is the most significant film he ever made.