Chadwick Boseman delivers an electric final performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the latest film adaptation of an August Wilson play.
Like Fences before it, the staging suffers, and it feels more like a play than a film. However, Boseman and Viola Davis—as the title character—propel the movie into the stratosphere when they hit their stride.
The film is basically a day in the life of Ma Rainey and her band as they try to record an album in a sweaty, dank studio, in Chicago circa 1927. The band members go through various levels of conflict in a basement practice room while Ma, her lover and her nephew do the same upstairs. They all come together for some blues numbers that Davis manages to lip-synch with aplomb.
Boseman plays trumpeter Levee; he’s tired of playing standard blues arrangements and wants something with a little more zip. Boseman shows no signs that he was suffering from the cancer that eventually took his life, delivering monologues with extreme power and grace. You won’t step on Levee’s shoes if you know what’s good for you.
Supporting work from Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts make this one of the year’s better ensemble casts. You’ll hear no complaints about the soundtrack—it’s a fine allotment of blues.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix.