Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is adapted from August Wilson’s play of the same name, written for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe. It feels very much like a play, with a staginess to the setting, especially early on, and long, unbroken monologues that are impressive on screen and you know would be electrifying live in a theater. Viola Davis (who has won two Tonys out of three nominations for Wilson plays) is commanding as Ma Rainey, the “mother of the blues” and one of the first generation of blues recording artists. She is already a star on the touring circuit, and she knows her value to the white men recording her music is just about her voice. To producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), she is difficult and demanding, a true diva who is always late, holds up recording sessions with ridiculous requests, and wants her stuttering nephew featured on her new record.
Ma Rainey is a bitter, aching portrait of Black artists struggling against white capitalism—a struggle that continues today—and Ma understands the only way to be treated as befitting a successful, popular singer is to do these things to force the white men profiting from her records to treat her as such. She withholds her signature on release forms until she is paid in full, she won’t start singing until the studio is to her liking, and she wants her nephew paid as a member of the band, not from a cut of her own money. Sturdyvant tries to undercut Ma at every turn, but the simple fact is, she won’t work until he lives up to their agreement, and ultimately, he can’t do anything about it, not as long as he wants to sell her records. Ma knows her voice is her power, and she wields it like a battering ram against anyone who would devalue her, not just as an artist but also as a person. Davis, under layers of vaudevillian greasepaint, body prosthetics, and sporting a set of gold teeth, captures the weariness of a woman who must constantly fight to be recognized and valued.
Ma does have a mean streak, though, she’s not just deploying attitude to protect herself. She clashes with tempestuous trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman in his final role), who has an ear for the up-and-coming jazz sound popular in Harlem. Levee wants his own band, and he’s written songs for Sturdyvant in hopes of recording his own music. He is ambitious, but with the talent to back up his ambition. He’s also hot-headed, hitting on Ma’s girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and fighting with every member of the band, most especially piano player Toledo (Glynn Turman) and band leader Cutler (Colman Domingo, who is just fantastic). His clash with Ma is as much about their penchant for the same ladies as it is artistic temperament. But Levee’s temper leads him to take tragic action, ending his hopes and dreams, and Boseman’s final shot in the film is poignant and gutting, a wildly promising young artist who will never realize his dreams. The film ends with a dedication to him, and as incredible as everyone in the ensemble is, as big of a powerhouse performance as this is from Viola Davis, it is ultimately Boseman’s film. He would run away with it regardless, but his untimely death adds layers of meta-meaning to Levee’s monologues and the ruin of all his hopes.
In reviewing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it’s difficult not to make it all about Chadwick Boseman. This is his final performance, after all, and it’s a barn burner. Even without the tragic circumstances of his untimely passing, his performance as Levee would be a high-water mark in an already dazzlingly accomplished career. As it is his final performance, though, Ma Rainey is infused with a piercing, bittersweet layer. When Levee rails against death, Boseman’s delivery lands like body blows, it is literally a breathtaking performance. This is Chadwick Boseman’s swan song, and it is a big, blazing performance that captures both his wild charisma on screen and his ability to deliver gut-wrenching, emotional monologues. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an actor’s showcase, and it will stand as a monument to Chadwick Boseman, of everything he was to cinema, and everything he could have been.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is streaming on Netflix from December 18.