It still hurts.
On Friday, August 28th of this year, Chadwick Boseman passed away at age 43, shocking and stunning everyone who got the news. (He was so young! I just saw him in 21 Bridges! He was gonna be a star!) He succumbed to Stage III colon cancer, which he didn’t divulge to the world. (There was speculation among social-media tea-spillers when he posted an Instagram video earlier this year in a thin, sickly state.) Despite being diagnosed in 2016, he still became an international superstar, appearing in several Marvel movies as Black-and-proud superhero Black Panther.
He also managed to appear in other films, including two for Netflix before passing: Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and an adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. While Bloods had him in a fiery supporting role, he’s out in front in Bottom, turning out another performance that’ll likely make you upset that he had to go so soon.
Boseman has the flashy role of Levee, a cocky young trumpeter in the backing band of real-life “mother of the blues” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (Viola Davis), circa 1927. In-between reefer hits and shining his brand-new shoes, Levee shoots the shit — and occasionally antagonizes — his bandmates Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and resident elder Toledo (Glynn Turman) as they wait for Rainey at a Chicago recording studio.
The usually lean-and-toned Davis is all sweaty, bloated and blustery as the divalicious Rainey, who saunters in late with her stuttering nephew (Dusan Brown) and a pretty young plaything (Taylour Paige) in tow. Covered in gold-capped teeth and garish makeup, Rainey is a feisty, cantankerous sight who’s always in my-way-or-the-highway mode. She has no problem holding up the session, giving hella demands (Where’s my Coca-Cola?!) and making sure her white producers (Jonny Coyne, Jeremy Shamos) sweat just as much as she does.
Since this is based on an August Wilson play — one from his career-defining Pittsburgh Cycle series — Bottom is not just about a blues singer butting heads with her crew in a sweltering recording studio. This is still set in the oh-so-oppressive early 20th century, and several of these characters of color spend the movie declaring that they, in fact, have agency. They may be known as colored folk (or even worse) to all the uppity crackers, but they’re also people with hearts, minds, and their own damn plans.
Boseman’s Levee is the one who proclaims this the loudest. He hopes to become enough of an established songwriter to perform and record with his own band, since his more contemporary revamps of Rainey’s jug-band standards don’t sit too well with the boss, who already feels her days as a blues bigwig are numbered. But even as Levee kowtows to the white guys, playing the role of the Respectful Negro so he can get his time to shine, he’s driven by internal anger and fury for all the racists who did him and his family wrong. We find this out in monologues that are heartbreaking not just in their storytelling, but in Boseman’s delivery of them — and how we’ll never see something like that from this man ever again.
With most of the movie taking place in the close confines of a recording studio, Bottom feels more hermetically staged than other film adaptations of Wilson plays. (Producer Denzel Washington’s version of Fences looks breezy in comparison.) Iconic theatre director/playwright George C. Wolfe does come with the cinematic flair, giving us nostalgic, CGI-ed, Chi-Town exteriors (as well as providing some very curious zoom-in shots). But he and screenwriter (and, yes, playwright and actor) Ruben Santiago-Hudson always keep the focus on the actors. Domingo, Potts, and Turman make a sage, stellar trio of seasoned vets, while Davis — to the surprise of absolutely no one — crushes her portrayal of the surly, world-weary Rainey.
But it’s Boseman you’re gonna remember. This is his final film role, and it could lead to plenty of posthumous (yet well-deserved) awards. While it’s sad that this is the last performance of one of the best actors of the last decade, it’s also obvious as hell that Chadwick Boseman, as with everything he ever did, gave it his all.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is now in theaters. It streams Friday on Netflix.