It is fitting that Chadwick Boseman’s final film performance would be Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an adaptation of an August Wilson play. Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, which includes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, famously documents many facets of the twentieth century African American experience. Likewise, Boseman’s career had an eye on history: Over the years he portrayed Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and James Brown. This confluence of performer and subject comes with the subtext of loss. Boseman knew he was very ill when he agreed to this role, and there is no way to separate that knowledge from what we see. Despite all that baggage around the film, seasoned theater director George C. Wolfe handles the material with empathy and wit.
Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) was a real blues singer, one of the first, and you can hear her influence in the few recordings of her that remain. The screenplay, adapted from Wilson’s original’s text by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, puts Ma in Chicago in the late 1920s. She is due for a recording session, while her band practices in the stingy rehearsal space below. The band lead Cutler (Colman Domingo) tries to keep everyone in line, but the horn player Levee (Boseman) has more ambitious plans. He thinks Ma’s style will fall out of fashion, and his interpretation of her music looks toward the future. In between recording sessions, everyone has an opportunity to chat and argue about ideas big and small.
Wilson’s plays are known for big, juicy monologues. There is some of that here, like when Levee dares God to smite him, but the challenge of adaptation is that the screen does not have the same urgency as the stage. A good theater production can create palpable frisson, while a stodgy theater adaptation drains the drama of its energy. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is somewhere in the middle: It is always clear the film is a stage adaptation, but Wolfe and his actors elevate the material more often than they do not. Some of the more discursive arguments nearly lose their way, so when Wolfe needs some energy, he adds a jolt through a musical interlude. Davis is a wonder in these scenes, a charismatic performer who refuses to assimilate any part of her identity.
One constant topic of discussion is the role Black musicians have in the recording industry. Ma has some clout because her records sell—Jeremy Shamos plays her White, obsequious manager Irvin—but many characters point out that clout is not the same thing as respect. Levee thinks his new songs can catapult him to fame, except the bitter final scene reminds us that White America has been co-opting Black music for nearly a century. The actual language is what livens the debate, keeping it from becoming too exacting or academic.
Characters use shorthand and profanity to handle abstract concepts, and the script grounds their point of view in experience. As the pianist Toledo, veteran character actor Glynn Turman reflects on wasted youth with hard-earned wisdom, while bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) just tries to keep his proverbial nose clean. Through all this is Boseman, whose performance is a galvanizing balance between a hardened idealist and a court jester. Levee has less experience than his bandmates, which is another way of saying his ideals dovetail with ambition his bandmates have long abandoned.
At just over ninety minutes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom does not overstay its welcome. Unlike Denzel Washington’s recent adaptation of Fences, which also featured Davis, this is a more playful version of Wilson’s sensibilities. Subplots are introduced and not quite resolved, like a romance between Levee and Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and that only deepens how the film reflects the messiness of real life. All this converges into a final scene that involves Boseman, where the clash of personalities, musical ambition, and racism has serious consequences. It is a fitting end to a singular career that was tragically cut short.
The film is available to stream on Netflix and in select Northern Virginia theaters on Friday.