Chadwick Boseman was one of our greatest and toughest losses of 2020. Not due to COVID-19 in his case, but a colon cancer diagnosis he’d kept private and worked through, leaving his death in August a crippling shock to all of us who had been in the dark. Not only was he young (43) and not only did he seem vigorous to those ignorant of his condition, but the roles he played, such as Black Panther, fostered the notion that he might be invulnerable to sickness, and might in fact live forever. Now he lives on only in his performances, and our memories.
We are fortunate to have gotten one more performance from him, and it has just debuted on Netflix. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom contains a different character’s name in the title, but this adaptation of an August Wilson play is Boseman’s movie. We didn’t get that kind of lead performance in his penultimate screen role, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which also debuted on Netflix this year. Whatever fates there may be, they saw it fit to put Boseman front and centre for his final performance, albeit not playing a character as likeable as some of the historical figures who helped build his acting profile in the first place.
Boseman plays Levee Brown, an ambitious trumpeter in the band supporting Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), herself an actual historical figure, who was known as the “Mother of the Blues.” Wilson’s play, and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation of it, is cofined to a single hot summer afternoon in Chicago of 1927, when the principals have all gathered in studio to record the titular song. While the band practises in the basement and slings bullshit as well as anecdotes that are far heavier in subject matter, Ma engages in a battle of wills with her manager (Jeremy Shamos) and the owner of the recording studio (Jonny Coyne), both of whom hope to profit from her popularity.
A single controversy has a ripple effect on the whole afternoon. The headstrong Ma has demanded that the song be recorded with an introduction by her nephew (Dusan Brown), who has a stutter. When Sylvester can’t successfully get through a single run through of his 20-odd words – the double B in “Black Bottom” proves particularly difficult – everyone else insists that Sylvester be pulled from the job. Making matters worse is that Levee already has a version of the song that’s livelier and more dance-oriented than Ma’s traditional arrangement, and the heat is further setting these strong personalities on a collision course with each other.
We’ll have a lot to say about Boseman, but let’s start with Ma. Director George C. Wolfe is unafraid to make Ma a truly menacing force, one whom Viola Davis depicts with relish. Looking almost unrecognisable, Davis dives deep into the larger-than-life presence of this woman, glistening with a sweat that the makeup artists surely reapplied between shots. This is a diva no doubt, one who treats any constructive suggestion as a personal affront, and uses every bit of her leverage to threaten to walk out any time something doesn’t go her way. As the story continues, though, we realise these are just mechanisms Ma has developed to cope with a world that is ready to exploit and undermine her the moment it gets a chance. For Ma, it’s kill or be killed, and she is tired of being killed.
Interestingly, the story is not constructed as a series of tete-a-tetes between Ma and Levee, who butt heads more indirectly, through intermediaries. But they are the two monolithic personalities who are driving their music in different directions, with other complications involving Ma’s beautiful young girlfriend (Taylour Paige) thrown in, and they burn brightly in the scenes butting up against those intermediaries. Levee mostly mixes it up with his fellow band members, who also give strong performances – that’s Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts. He sets himself apart from them when he comes in with a new pair of shoes, a source of great pride to him and great teasing to them. Before this story is over, those shoes will take on great value as a catalyst, and a metaphor.
As many jovial interactions as these characters have, their scenes are grounded by a couple powerhouse stories of how the racism of the white man has brought them to where they are and informed who they have become. That’s the shrewd thing about how racial interactions are presented in this movie. We hear awful tales of bigotry and even murder, the worst kind of macroaggressions you could imagine. But their interactions with the white manager and studio owner are all about the microaggressions, transparent attempts to make nice with and please the talent until the exact moment they are no longer needed. In fact, the white characters are polite even beyond that point, which makes their ultimately exploitative intentions all the more sinister.
Boseman has the most intense of these powerhouse stories. He recounts a tale when, as a child, he tried to intervene with the white men who were raping his mother. All his previous bluster, which had taken on a devil-may-care attitude, is now placed in the chilling context of the pain of his past. Boseman’s delivery of this monologue would only be the film’s high point if he didn’t have two other big moments of equal impact. Most actors give us whatever last performance happened to be next up on their schedule, unlikely to rise to the standard of their best work. Boseman’s reminds us what we might have been treated to in the next three decades of his career.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second recent prominent adaptation of a Wilson play after Fences, which earned a best picture nomination for Denzel Washington a few years back. Washington is also a producer here, and has his sights on bringing more Wilson plays to the screen. While Fences was a strong if ambling effort, Ma Rainey outdoes it with the laser focus of its themes. The film reaps great benefits from concentrating on a single afternoon, a choice which of course is embedded in the source material, but which does nothing to diminish character development, nor the extrapolation of its themes to racial dynamics still abundant in today’s society.
With about 30 minutes left in the film, Levee says, “Now death? Death’s got some style. Death will kick your ass and make you wish you’d never been born, that’s how bad death is.” As he spoke those words, Boseman likely knew death was coming for him sooner rather than later. If that knowledge enabled him to contribute this final gem to his legacy, it might have been worth the pain the awareness undoubtedly caused him.