Chadwick Boseman didn’t intend for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to be his last. But everyone who watches the film will be thinking about the fact that it is. The posthumous performance is a difficult thing to judge accurately because it’s impossible to separate your sadness about the actor’s death from your evaluation of the actual acting. The tragedy of his passing colors your feelings, adding a heightened sense of urgency and vulnerability to the role. We may need time and perspective to declare with any kind of authority just how great Boseman was as Levee, the ambitious, volatile cornetist in August Wilson’s acclaimed work. But for now, let me just say he’s pretty damn great — and that part of that greatness is mixed with melancholy. It’s a performance so full of life that it makes Boseman’s sudden death hurt all over again.
Opening in theaters today and coming to Netflix on December 18th, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom would have been a major event even before Boseman’s passing this summer at the age of 43 from colon cancer. Based on Wilson’s Tony-nominated 1982 play, the film feels attuned to our current Black Lives Matter moment, taking place in the late 1920s but speaking to the country’s continuing habit of exploiting Black talent to enrich white businessmen and entertain white audiences. Director George C. Wolfe doesn’t entirely get around the inherent staginess of the material — characters break into monologues in a way that feels inevitably artificial — but the power of the words and the potency of the ideas are such that those quibbles don’t much matter. Plus, there are the performances, which start with Boseman’s but certainly don’t end there.
The action takes place in Chicago as a band of Black musicians are assembling for a recording session. There’s Cutler (Colman Domingo), trombonist and leader of the group, alongside pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts). But the one who grabs your attention is Levee (Boseman), who walks into the rehearsal space shooting off his mouth and showing off his sweet new dress shoes. He’s a cocky guy who fancies himself an artist, not some hired hand. Hell, he’s even working on his own songs, which he figures will make him as big a star as the singer they’re backing at today’s session. That’s Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), who’s predictably late — divas show up when they want to, not at what time was scheduled — and so the men cool their heels, crack jokes and tell stories as they await her arrival.
But there’s a noticeable tension in the air — and not just because Ma’s late, which angers Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the impatient owner of the recording studio, and stresses out Ma’s long-suffering manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who just wants everything to go smoothly. One of the songs on today’s docket is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but Levee is excited to use his jazzier, sexier new arrangement — he thinks that the “jug-band music” sound is played-out. Cutler tells Levee that Ma makes those decisions, but Levee doesn’t much care what she prefers. Cutler just gives the kid a look. This damn fool doesn’t have any sense.
I’ve never seen Wilson’s play, so I can’t say what’s been changed, deleted or added, but unlike Fences, which was made into a film in 2016 and earned Davis a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom feels extremely stage-bound, with most of the story taking place in the studio’s basement rehearsal space and the upstairs recording room. Set over the course of a day, the film is more talky than plot-driven, but it captures the underlying resentments, ego and tedium that are endemic to most collective creative acts. Wolfe conjures up atmosphere — not just of a recording studio but of the racial animus that’s bubbling underneath. You can feel it in the way that Irvin patronizingly smiles at Ma’s band members, giving them attaboy pats on the shoulder in a faux sign of solidarity. The studio has different floors, and likewise, there are different social stratas at play in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, with the Black musicians dwelling beneath the white moneymen. Everybody recognizes the inequality, but it’s never acknowledged — well, at least when white people are in the room.
In between these two spheres resides Ma Rainey, and Davis gives the kind of rock-star performance that’s so commanding and forceful that you almost want to laugh — it’s an absolute delight to watch her tear the roof off the place. An actual blues singer of the era, Rainey is depicted as short-tempered and capricious. (If she doesn’t get her Coca-Cola right now, there’s going to be trouble.) But Rainey knows that her behavior will be tolerated because she makes Irvin and Sturdyvant rich — and as long as that happens, the fact that she’s Black and a woman in the 1920s will be held against her a lot less than it would otherwise.
That reality will elicit extra sympathy from the audience for Rainey, which you’ll need since she proves to be a holy terror, insisting that the band’s version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” include a spoken intro by her meek nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). The problem? He’s got a stutter, which ruins take after take after take. (Remember, this is years before recording technology was all digital, so they can’t piece together different takes — they’ve got to start from the top each time until he gets through it all without stuttering.) Rainey is trying to be supportive of her sister’s boy, but it’s also a flex on her part: She wants to let everyone in the room know just how much power she has.
Davis exudes a simmering ferocity — buried under gaudy makeup, encased in a rubber suit and working a slow Southern drawl, she’s a volcano always about to erupt — but as terrific as she is in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it’s hard not to feel that the movie belongs to Boseman. If he were still with us, maybe that wouldn’t be the case. Instead, we would have just marveled at the new depths he reveals in this movie.
Among the many things that’s sad about Boseman’s death is that he didn’t have that long to be fully appreciated by audiences. (His first starring vehicle, 42, was only seven years ago.) We were still discovering what he was capable of achieving. His role in Da 5 Bloods is vastly different than his role in 21 Bridges, and his T’Challa isn’t anything like his James Brown. You see hints of Brown in Levee, who like the Hardest Working Man in Show Business looks like he’s about to jump out of his skin and has a vibrant musicality. Often in his brief career, Boseman played noble characters — whether fictional (like Black Panther) or based on real people (like Thurgood Marshall) — and he brought such decency to those parts that you could overlook just how electric he could be in Get On Up. Watching Boseman carve up Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, you see the swagger and sex appeal that he understandably tapped down elsewhere. Levee is a card, but he’s also a lot, whether he’s hustling Sturdyvant to let him record his own material or cozying up to Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), Rainey’s girlfriend, who definitely seems open to a fling with this flirty hotshot.
I don’t know if this is Boseman’s best performance, but it’s the one that seems to most knock down the doors of our expectations of what he could do. Like several of the characters, Levee will take a moment to stop the action and tell the other band members something personal about himself. As beautifully written as the monologues can be, they often feel jarringly static in the context of the movie, and that’s true of Levee’s as well. And yet, Boseman brings such pain to this musician’s story of a traumatic childhood event — and how it informed his view of racism and injustice. As we’ll eventually discover, for all his strut, Levee has learned to survive by moving fast and talking faster — he’s a ball of energy who’s trying to forget the terrible things he’s experienced. Maybe having sex with Mae will make him whole. Maybe showing up Rainey will. Or maybe becoming a star will do the trick. But before some bad things happen at the end of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, we already recognize the tragedy of Levee’s life: Nothing will make up for what he’s lost.
Again, this movie isn’t just about Boseman. The whole cast is superb, the characters playing out this tense drama while trying to lay down a few tracks. But Levee’s anguish lingers longest. This wild-eyed young man, so full of potential, doesn’t even realize he’s about to throw it all away. Boseman channels that energy, not aware he’d never have a chance to top what he does in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This shouldn’t have been the end, but it’s a hell of a finale.