Ma Rainey's Black Bottom review: Chadwick Boseman's last and finest performance
Dir: George C Wolfe. Featuring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts. 15, 94 mins
When Chadwick Boseman rages against an unjust God, in the climax of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it strikes like thunder. The moment serves as the emotional fulcrum of August Wilson’s play, here adapted for the screen by George C Wolfe – part of Wilson's “Pittsburgh Cycle”, a series of works documenting Black life over the 20th century. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the only entry set outside of Wilson’s native city, taking place in Chicago, in 1927. Boseman plays Levee, a cavalier trumpeter hired to record a few popular hits.
Levee is a man sprinting across a tightrope – fixed on his destination, knowing that the speed will soon make him fall. When the final betrayal comes, Levee explodes – and Boseman translates those words to screen with such force, it’s like he’s lept outside of the screen to stand beside his audience. It only intensifies the pain of his loss. The actor died in August of this year, with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom marking his last, and posthumously released, film. It’s the performance of his career – one delivered with such grace that there’s a sense he had another hundred performances like it still in him. He flits between emotions like a pianist’s fingers dancing between the keys, never exposing the gaps in between. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom reminds us that Wilson, on stage and on screen, has always been the catalyst for great acting.
Levee is a force that pummels through the film, coming up against walls of resistance. He believes that exceptionalism and self-confidence alone can overcome the bigotry of white studio owners. He writes them new material, which they feign interest in and then vaguely dismiss. The other band members (played exquisitely by Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, and Glynn Turman) taunt him in return. Wolfe, who directed the first Broadway production of Angels in America, never resists the innate theatricality of Wilson’s material, which here has been partially condensed by screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The camera darts between actors during their furious repartees, slows and steadies for their monologues.
Levee has also rewritten the titular “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, thinking it’ll play better as a jazzy, fast-paced jaunt. One person disagrees – Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), the only real-life figure that Wilson ever featured, known as the “Mother of Blues”. Davis starred in the first-ever film adaptation of the playwright’s works, 2015’s Fences, and won an Oscar for it. Its director, Denzel Washington, produces here, as part of a vow to bring the complete Pittsburgh Cycle to screen.
Ma’s greasepaint and heavy silks all shimmer with a thin layer of perpetual sweat. On her front teeth sit golden grills. The transformation is impressive in itself (though her choice to wear a fat suit feels ill-advised). But Davis burns through the pageantry, her ferocity only dulled by the occasional wave of exhaustion – when Ma will sit, crumpled in two, left alone in a sudden moment of self-reflection. “All they want is my voice,” she says of the studio heads. Once she’s done her job and signed the contract, any illusion of power will be gone. It’s the fight against dreadful inevitability that leads Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom into tragedy – and towards Levee’s final heart-wrenching, wrathful condemnation of his own fate.