‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ review: a soulful swansong for Chadwick Boseman

The 'Black Panther' icon stars opposite Viola Davis in his final film performance

This handsome adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 stage play features the final film appearance from Chadwick Boseman, who tragically died of colon cancer during post-production. It’s a fitting swansong for the Black Panther actor, who gives a beautifully nuanced performance in a story that deftly explores racial inequality in the music industry. Though Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was written nearly 40 years ago and takes place in 1920s Chicago, the cruel exploitation at its core feels stingingly pertinent today.

Wilson’s story is fictional but built around a legendary real-life figure: Ma Rainey, the pioneering singer who made more than 100 recordings in the 1920s and became known as “mother of the blues”. Viola Davis, who won an Oscar for her performance in Denzel Washington’s adaptation of another Wilson play, Fences, is also excellent here: she imbues the battle-hardened singer with brassy glamour and an indomitable charisma. Ma knows full well that her white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and white producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) only treat her with fawning respect because her voice makes them money. But she’s shrewd and sure enough of her standing to travel with a female lover (Taylour Paige) at a time when this would have been scandalous, so she doesn’t let anyone else call the shots. Sadly, Ma’s toughness would probably still be necessary now. Nearly a century later, we’re only just beginning to discuss the way Black female singers have been used and undervalued by the music world.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Viola Davis as the titular 1920s blues singer. Credit: Netflix

The film unfolds at a tense recording session where Levee (Boseman), a trumpeter in Ma’s band who’s also a talented songwriter, wants her to record a new, more modern arrangement of signature song ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’. Director George C. Wolfe prevents the source material from feeling too stagey by including a few outdoor scenes set in the Windy City’s bustling streets, including an on-the-nose incident involving a white cop. Still, this is a dialogue-heavy ride driven by its powerful performances. Before Ma shows up late to the studio – presumably as a power move – Levee banters with bandmates Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) about what it means to be Black in 1920s America. As Levee lets his smiley demeanour slide to reveal a brutally racist crime that defined his childhood, Boseman’s delivery is incredibly moving.

When the session finally begins, Ma insists that nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) deliver the song’s spoken-word intro despite the fact he has a stutter. We see how her status and tenacious spirit allow her to overcome the racism in the room, but Levee isn’t so lucky. The film’s poignant coda shows how he’s been tricked and exploited by the middle-aged white guys higher up the ladder. It’s a biting finale to Boseman’s brilliant and far too short film career.

Details

  • Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman
  • Director: George C. Wolfe
  • Release date: December 18 (Netflix)
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