When we first see Chadwick Boseman as the ambitious young trumpeter Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” it’s both a smile-inducing moment and a stiff punch in the gut. As most know, Boseman passed away this past August following his private battle with colon cancer. He was just 43-years-old. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” marks his final film appearance which unavoidably brings extra attention and emotion. But don’t think that’s the reason Boseman’s performance has been so well received. This may very well be the best work of his career.
While Boseman is sure to get most of the attention this really is an movie with rich, magnetic performances throughout. It starts with Viola Davis playing the eponymous Ma Rainey. Davis offers up a fierce portrayal, capturing the classic blues icon’s tough and abrasive exterior. The film shows Ma to be a surly hard case, fiery and combative, willing to use her clout to push back on all of the era’s oppressive establishments and frankly anyone else who ticks her off.
Set in 1927, the bulk of the story takes place during one scorching hot afternoon at a recording studio in downtown Chicago. By this time Ma Rainey had already been christened the Mother of Blues and she had learned the hard way how the game was played. She knows her agent and the record producer (both white) only want her for her voice and the money it will bring them. That’s why she doesn’t mind making them squirm, wondering if she’s actually going to show up. Meanwhile her band arrives on time and sets up in the basement to practice.
Most of the movie takes place in two rooms, the basement where the band warms up and the recording room. While Ma’s name is stamped in the title, it’s in the basement that we see the film’s star. When Boseman’s larger-than-life Levee arrives he comes with enough charisma to fill the entire room. He’s a force of personality brimming with self-confidence; a bit impetuous and headstrong which stands out most when he playfully butts heads with his older bandmates. There are some terrific dialogue-rich scenes in the basement where generations and philosophies clash. They even differ on music. Levee wants to pep things up while the others keep reminding him “You play Ma’s music when you’re here.”
By the way, those older bandmates are played by the exceptional trio of Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts. They cut through the dialogue with a sparkling chemistry and each are given their own scenes that reflect on their experiences as black men in 1920s America. But it always comes back to Levee played by Boseman with a wild-eyed vigor. Levee is far from one-dimensional and as his layers peel away the late actor is given a couple of meaty moments including one big “Hey Oscar!” monologue and a later scene that seems ready-made for awards season consumption. Yet Boseman nails both, unearthing his character’s deep-rooted pain and anger. It’s a stand-out performance.
The focus shifts a bit when Ma and her entourage finally arrive at Hot Rhythm Recordings. A snarling whirlwind of indignation, Ma immediately ups the temperature in the already sweltering studio, locking horns with her antsy agent (Jeremy Shamos) and challenging the patience of the studio head (Jonny Coyne). Even the band gets a taste of Ma’s ire, especially Levee who can’t quite get in line with her strict ways of doing things. It all sets up a combustible third act ending with a final scene that hits like a ton of bricks.
While Boseman gets to dig deep into his character’s psyche, Davis is mostly restricted to Ma’s tough-as-nails exterior. She gets to let loose in portraying Ma as an ill-tempered force of nature, but only gets a few lines that hint at who she was underneath. The rest is vaguely implied or expected to be known from history. So it may not hurt to read Ma Rainey’s Wikipedia page before watching. For Davis’ part it’s a fearless and fascinating performance, but the script leaves so much buried within her character and ultimately untapped.
The film is based on August Wilson’s 1982 play which was the second part of his Pittsburgh Cycle series chronicling the black experience in America during the 20th Century. Director George C. Wolfe doesn’t stray from the story’s stage roots but the doesn’t strictly adhere to them either. There are a handful of scenes that pull us out of the studio and energizes the setting. And Ann Roth adds to the period detail with her magical costume design that could have been plucked right out the Roaring Twenties. Yet despite its efforts, chunks of the movie still feel considerably more stagey than cinematic. But that’s hardly a deal-breaker especially when screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson fills his scenes with rich soulful dialogue and you have such flavored performances from a stellar ensemble. And none are better than the late Chadwick Boseman. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” premieres on Netflix December 18th.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS