Chadwick Boseman only starred in 15 films during his lifetime, but he’s had an irreplaceable impact on cinema and culture, portraying T’Challa aka the Black Panther in four feature films, while bringing to life the likes of Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and Norman Earl “Stormin’ Norm” Holloway in his more serious works, of which his portrayal of trumpeter Levee Green in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — his final film role — is a worthy entry in. Boseman died far too young, taken at what would have been the prime of his career, with his renown as an elite, serious actor well-known, and with many cinematic appearances of T’Challa likely to have happened over the next few years had he lived.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” follows the story of the “Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), who comes to Chicago in 1920 to reluctantly record a record with her band made up of Levee, guitar/ trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and double bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts). Accompanying them is Ma’s girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and her nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), who Ma insists gets a speaking part in the record, despite the fact that he has a stutter. Working for the recording studio is Mel Sturdyvant (Johnny Coyne), its owner, and Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), Ma’s manager.
In no uncertain terms, “Rainey” documents Sturdyvant and Irvin’s attempts to capture Ma’s music so that they can have white people record it and, taking advantage of Levee’s affinity for writing music, turn her songs into catchy beats people can dance to. As such, Sturdyvant is portrayed as a very open racist who wants as little to do with Ma and her crew as he can, and Irvin is portrayed as a weasel who sees only the potential for Ma’s music to sell.
The two stars of the film really are Davis and Boseman. Davis portrays Ma as a dominant woman who knows very much why the recording studio wants her music, and she uses the fact that her voice and songs are irreplaceable to get Sturdyvant and Irvin to bend to her whims, threatening to walk out if the session doesn’t go her way. Levee is similar to Ma, as he proclaims grand dreams of starting his own band and recording his own music, and he is very independent, but he isn’t respected by his fellow band members, who are all older than him, until he delivers a perfectly-delivered monologue about his own experiences with white racists and how he knows how to play their system. Ma and Levee are two independent souls who have very similar character flaws; the difference is Ma already established her base and doesn’t need the record to survive, and all Levee has is dreams. Both are brash and direct in their own ways, but while Ma can get away with making demands of the white recording studio, Levee isn’t in a place to be acting out the way he does in this film because he has yet to prove himself, and it leads to his downfall.
Based on a play, director George C. Wolfe, who has extensive experience directing theatre, knows exactly what to focus on, which makes “Ma Rainey” a smooth 94 minutes that makes you forget that there is pretty much one location for the film (the recording studio). It allows Davis and Boseman to deliver small, intimate performances with layers to them that reminds me a lot of how “Marriage Story” focuses on characters. This film might be an hour an a half of people talking in rooms, but it manages to cut all distractions out and deliver something truly special that resonates
I’ve seen several people suggest that this might be Boseman’s best performance of his career, and they might be right. Nothing I’ve seen this year seems to come close to the performances Davis and Boseman gave in this movie. If Boseman gets a posthumous Oscar for this, I’d say it was well-deserved.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” gets a 9/10