Fittingly, Chadwick Boseman’s final role is all about the blues. The late actor’s appearance in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the August Wilson adaptation from director George C. Wolfe and writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson, is equal parts actorly showcase, angry eulogy and comprehensive lament—boiled together in the sweaty kitchen of a ‘20s Chicago recording session.
A story of ambition’s multiple facets and eventual endpoints, Ma Rainey revolves around those orbiting its title character (Viola Davis). She’s a blues legend at the top of her game, finally appreciated (at least in some parts of the country) and ripe for exploitation by white men in suits. As if she’d let them. She’s comfortably late to record an album, leaving everyone else to kick up their heels and shoot the shit in true Wilson style—with Santiago-Hudson finding the essence of Wilson’s work. Davis’ brutal performance, made all the more potent by her avalanche of makeup and glistening sweat, perfectly sets the scene. She, alongside loosened neckties and whirring fans, gives the film its intended temperature and gravity so that Boseman and the rest of her band members can zip around like fireflies ambling in the summer heat.
Wolfe, predominantly known for his stage work, makes the majority of the film performance-heavy and intimate as these musicians are stuck in the underground practice room from Hell. It’s hard to go wrong with Wilson’s words, but Tobias Schliessler also shoots the hell out of them (aside from the fakey exterior scenes, which only hurt the movie anyways), making it a lot more dynamic than an adaptation like Fences. With a camera that knows who to look at and how, the single-room drama—deliciously dense and brisk like a string of sixteenth notes—does Wilson’s words justice as the ensemble of instrumentalists bust balls between takes.
Those band members—Levee (Boseman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts)—are, aside from Levee, seasoned session vets who are here to play the gig, get it done in one take and get paid. They’ve got a trombone, a double bass and a piano, but these are merely the tools of the trade to journeymen who’ve long ago learned what it means to be accompaniment. And then there’s Levee. He’s a hungry, fiery peacock with a flugelhorn: Young, rash and unhappy in any spot but the spotlight, he’s the stereotypical trumpet player.
Over 90 minutes that push the tempo to its limits, Levee battles his demons while trying to carve out a place of his own in the music world. He’s too young to raise his horn and trade fours with the grey hairs. He wants to write songs, play melodies, make feet stomp and women swoon. Boseman taps into it all. Ma Rainey’s the second Wilson adaptation under the watchful eye of producer Denzel Washington, who directed Fences back in 2016 and has many more planned, and Wolfe’s direction similarly brings out the best in his actors.
With tragic serendipity, he leaves us a gift: Boseman is on fire. Lean, with the camera placements and props emphasizing his gangly limbs (there’s a reason he wields a squashed and squat flugelhorn, a jazz staple that happens to work better visually), Levee is a highly physical role despite the chatty source material: It’s all about capturing attention, sometimes literally tap-dancing for it, with any ounce of shame overrun by an anxious energy. High-strung, twitchy and tense during a nearly five-minute monologue, Levee seems to sense the window to his dream is closing: Time is running out.
These scenes focus on his face—a smiling mask that conceals baked-in pain, echoed in Domingo’s more practiced and professional grimace as Boseman’s grown-up foil—but often take in his whole body as he circles, paces and stomps like a lion in a zoo. It’s an exceptional, fitting performance for Boseman’s final hurrah. A life interrupted, an artist fired before his due, a songwriter unrecorded, a role all about incompletion—Levee can’t even finish a fling with Ma’s girlfriend.
The scenes between the bandmates are completely compelling and it’s only when they actually leave—to record the album, go to the store, argue with the record label and management—that the film seems to pause for breath. It tries for some Coens-esque humor in the recording studio, with some obscene Coke-slurping from Davis and a tired stutter gag, but the jokes and the tension with the white execs all end up feeling out of place in the more moving, bitterly ironic overall scheme. Worst of all, the music segments—especially in the editing—are a little half-assed; aside from Davis’ emotive lip-sync performances, the songs often feel more disjointed and undisciplined than the rest of the film. It’s a quibble, sure, but a jazz film should have its actors at least pretend to be playing its songs.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is more than Boseman’s performance, sure, with Davis and Domingo going on some delicious tears of their own and Wilson’s words continuing to sear and soar in equal measure. But Boseman’s ownership of the film, an Oscar-worthy snapshot of potential and desire, gives an otherwise lovely and broad tragedy something specific to sing about.
Director: George C. Wolfe
Writer: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts
Release Date: December 18, 2020 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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