The Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom begins with an image that’s common in any movie dealing with race in America’s past: two Black men dashing through the woods, as fast as their legs will carry them. But they’re not running from anything, as the film initially suggests. Rather, they’re running to something: to see the blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). That introduction, an invention of George C. Wolfe’s film (in theaters, such as they are, now, and due on Netflix Dec. 4), sets up everything that’s to come, not just because America’s history of slavery is an inescapable shadow hanging over Ma Rainey’s music, but because the reason to run to this movie is the titanic performances of its leads: Davis and, in his final performance, the late Chadwick Boseman.
Boseman plays Levee, a trumpeter who aspires to one day lead his own band. His ambitions, however, make him a thorn in Ma’s side as he sneaks in solos during her shows, flirts with Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and, as the band settles in for a day of recording, tries to change the musical arrangements to fit what he considers to be a more modern and hip sound. But the film isn’t just a clash of two big personalities. As the session progresses, the layers peel back, revealing what’s behind the masks that Ma and Levee wear. Ma’s aggressive, demanding behavior isn’t just the mark of a diva and living legend, but a way of keeping what small measure of control she can over her life. The white men for whom she’s now performing—and who will profit from her music—are in a position where they are forced to treat her with respect, and care about what she wants. Levee’s cocksure behavior, meanwhile, is a way of covering up the pain he’s suffered in order to get where he is, and a way of manifesting the person he ultimately wants to be.
In Ma Rainey’s best moments, Davis and Boseman burn away any sense of the film’s theatrical origins. Davis is transformed by heavy makeup and padding, all of which she carries off so naturally, even changing the way she moves in accordance with Ma Rainey’s larger figure, that she’s almost unrecognizable. Boseman’s countenance is unchanged, but his performance is no less impressive, as the role of Levee demands that he carry off a tempest of emotions without ever alienating the audience. Unlike Boseman’s biggest previous roles—T’Challa, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson—Levee is a character most viewers won’t come with their own impressions of, and so volatile that, in the wrong hands, he could almost come off as a villain rather than the tragic figure he truly is. But Boseman makes him just as human as any of the real-life titans he’s played. Boseman’s natural charm and charisma have always been evident, and they’re weaponized here as Levee’s façade of confidence cracks open to reveal past traumas and existential uncertainty. When he asks his fellow bandmates how they can still put stock in any sort of religion or God when atrocities have been visited upon so many Black Americans, he manages to convey both reproach at their perceived naivety and the faint hope, nevertheless, that they might somehow be right.
Ultimately, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom can’t quite escape feeling stagey at times, especially as most of the play confines the band members to a dank room that, though injected with some color and light by cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler, feels lifeless relative to the electric energy of the first scene in Ma’s tent. Once the film gets into the meat of Wilson’s text, there’s little that can be done or added that would make the proceedings more cinematic without altering the story too dramatically. Though Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson are at an advantage given that Wilson’s writing emulates natural human speech as well as is possible, and the cast (including the terrific Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts as the rest of Ma’s band) are all up to the task of bringing his words to life, there’s no getting around the fact that the play is structured around a few key monologues, and naturally limited in terms of setting.
That is to say, the reason to see the film is the pair of performances at its heart. Though the trappings around them may falter from time to time, Davis and Boseman are at the top of their game throughout. And it’s a fitting, heartbreaking swan song for Boseman, who, with Levee, makes his most notable break from the icons he’d played before, demonstrating that he was capable of even more than we knew—that he was just getting started.