His epic performance in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ shows us just what we’ve lost
I saw the Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom movie. This is a significant film for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it features the final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman, and cements his reputation as one of the great actors in cinematic history. Boseman portrays a trumpet player named Levee, who backs up the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey, but longs to have his own band. His performance veers between swagger and desperation, smooth confidence and drugged-up anger.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: George C. Wolfe
Written by: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, adapted from the play by August Wilson
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman
Running time: 94 min
Levee carries the weight of Black American history on his narrow shoulders, and it’s too much tragic burden for him. Boseman delivers his many dramatic speeches and bits of patter with jaw-dropping mastery. He will almost certainly win the Best Actor Oscar for this role, an award he would deserve even if it weren’t posthumous. Even in a year when you can’t see many movies outside of Netflix, where Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom lives exclusively, it’s by far the best performance I’ve seen.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second film that Denzel Washington has produced in his epic attempt to adapt August Wilson’s ten-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” to the screen, following 2016’s equally successful ‘Fences’. Wilson’s plays are nothing less than an attempt to dramatize the entirety of the Black American experience, and are one of the most significant artistic achievements in American history. By memorializing them on film, Washington is elevating them to the canonical level of Shakespeare, or at least to Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, which is where they belong.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, brief musical prologue and epilogue aside, mostly takes place within the theatre-friendly confines of a recording studio, as Ma Rainey prepares to lay down some songs on vinyl for a sleazy record producer. Legendary theater director George C. Wolfe has a steady hand and does his best to expand the world by giving us some Chicago exterior shots and a few other dialogue-free side scenes. But the movie never quite breaks free from its theatrical roots. Most of the time, it feels like an episode of PBS’ ‘Great Performances’, albeit a really good one.
Viola Davis, who won an Oscar for Fences, will certainly get a nomination for this one as well. Her Ma Rainey is a powerful presence, self-assured but annoying arrogant, stuck in the past but fully her own woman. Davis is almost impossible to recognize underneath an intimidating mound of eyeshadow, makeup, and lipstick. She bulldozes every room she enters, sheened with sweat, utterly terrifying, and supremely annoying. She manages her own business in a way that Boseman’s damaged trumpet player can’t, and won’t.
So even though the screenplay feels a bit stagey at times, people will be watching this movie for decades to come, both for its brilliant depiction of how white record companies co-opted and stole Black jazz and blues music, but also for its excellent acting. Glynn Turman, not seen in a prominent role for a while, plays a wise old piano player with low-key professionalism. It’s good to see a film feature him so prominently. All the other supporting characters are solid. Davis is a force of nature. And Chadwick Boseman is simply a master. He literally gives Levee his every last ounce of energy, and that performance is an artistic gift to us all. It also reminds us exactly what we’ve lost.
RIP, Chadwick Boseman. And thank you.
This concludes my review of the Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom movie.