The actor’s last on-screen performance features in a fascinating adaptation of August Wilson’s eponymous play, that was first staged in 1982
What a firecracker of a performance from Chadwick Boseman for his final on-screen appearance! The actor who passed away on August 28, 2020, lights up the film with an incandescent turn as the hot-headed trumpeter, Levee, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
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It is 1927 in Chicago, in a recording studio, where the band waits for the “mother of blues”, Ma Rainey, to make her appearance for a recording session. Even before she comes into the studio, there is a battle of wills simmering with the white producer, Sturdyvant, trying to lay down the law as to which songs are to be recorded and in what order. Ma Rainey’s manager, Irvin, is trying to keep tempers cool and get the job done.
Levee has ideas of striking out on his own. He has rewritten ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ and there is friction over how it should be played. Ma wants her nephew, Sylvester, to introduce the song despite his stutter. As Levee, Toledo, Cutler and Slow Drag rehearse, they exchange confidences and stories that go a long way in explaining the men they have become.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
- Director: George C. Wolfe
- Cast: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige, Dusan Brown, Jonny Coyne, Jeremy Shamos
- Story line: In Chicago in 1927, history is written at a charged recording session
- Run time: 94 minutes
Levee’s quicksilver moods are a result of a traumatic childhood. When he says, “I can smile and say yessir to whoever I please, I got my time coming to me,” it is a horrific mix of bravado and pathos. Ma is tough as they come and realistic to boot, and uses the white man’s need to drive a hard bargain.
The film is based on August Wilson’s eponymous play first staged in 1982. The theme of exploitation of black artists by white producers is vividly brought out in the movie, and it jives on a smooth rhythm. While it might seem stagey, set as it is in a handful of indoor locations, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom effectively uses the claustrophobia of the studio.
Matching Boseman’s iridescent performance is Viola Davis as Ma. When she says, “I cant stand silence, music keeps the balance,” you cannot help agreeing with her. The rest of the band, Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) are pitch perfect as are Taylour Paige as Dussie Mae, Ma’s girlfriend that Levee has an eye on, Dusan Brown as the nervous Sylvester, Jonny Coyne as the exploitative Sturdyvant and Jeremy Shamos as the harried, hassled Irvin.
A fascinating snapshot of a particular time and place in history, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a heartbreaking tribute to the fierce and tender talent of Chadwick Boseman.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is current streaming on Netflix