“Life can change in the blink of an eye” is one of those clichés that sounds more hyperbolic than it really is. While it may seem dramatic to suggest that actual milliseconds can radically alter the trajectory of a person’s existence, the daunting fact remains that life is delicate and fickle. The late playwright August Wilson explored as much in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in which one man’s trauma and hubris leads to a tremendous, lightning-quick fall from grace. At its core, Wilson’s 1982 play is a tragic allegory about the extremely tenuous nature of the Black American Dream, and how, for too many in this country, prosperity comes down not just to hard work but also righting larger wrongs and overcoming systematic roadblocks. To that end, an ostensibly minor setback can be catastrophic for someone reliant on sweeping success for basic survival—a reality Wilson explores through the figure of Levee, a young, ambitious trumpeter who, over the span of mere hours, loses everything: his job, his love interest, and, via creative theft, much more.
Ma Rainey’s is the ballad of a promising talent whose rising star is unceremoniously dimmed. That aspect takes on fresh significance—a uniquely cruel irony—in George C. Wolfe’s new adaptation. After all, Levee is played by Chadwick Boseman, in his final screen role, shot before his shocking death in August. The film has more than its share of toast-worthy elements, from its sharp ensemble to its dutiful nods to 1920s Chicago and Old Hollywood, courtesy of Tobias A. Schliessler’s illuminating cinematography. But the appearance of the actor, in one last tremendous star performance, only enhances the material’s tragic power.
The title refers to Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, one of the earliest Black professional blues singers of record. Ma Rainey’s fictionalizes the creation of one of her most prominent tracks, “Black Bottom,” as a cataclysmic recording session over a single day in 1927. While the Mother Of The Blues, played with irreverent ease by Viola Davis, maintains a somewhat spiritual presence throughout the production, her physical presence is sparse in comparison to the men at the center of this tale: the members of Rainey’s backup jazz band, who await her arrival inside a dimly lit, secluded practice room in the basement of the studio. While they wait, bandmates Cutler (played by the charming Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and Levee (Boseman) attempt to rehearse ahead of the landmark session.
Any chance at productivity comes to a halt when the boastful trumpet player and his seasoned colleagues engage in a lengthy dispute regarding which version of “Black Bottom” they’ll play. Will it be the slower original arrangement, or Levee’s quick-tempo update, which he believes will place him squarely on the path to one day leading his own band? Eventually, the men are paid a visit by Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the exploitative studio owner, who unabashedly sees little value in Black performers. When Levee, eager to lodge his foot in the proverbial door of fame, shamelessly pitches his music for the chance to record his own record, the interaction is lampooned by his older bandmates, accusing him of sacrificing his dignity for racist white men. It’s an explosive exchange that leads to a revealing, harrowing monologue about Levee’s past, his mother’s sexual assault, and his father’s murder.
Though his cocksure attitude puts him at odds with Ma Rainey, in many ways Levee aims to be just like her: a leader, a marquee-ready performer, and powerful enough to have full autonomy over his music. But there are a lot of people between Levee and his happiness—the band, Ma Rainey, Sturdyvant— and each charged encounter reveals more of his inner torment, a new layer of unthinkable trauma. For this troubled musician, music is both a passion and means of desperate escape from his demons. With the stakes so high, a boiling point—a fatalistic climax—seems inevitable.
It’s with great sincerity that Boseman and Davis anchor their characters to a sense of purpose. “Black Bottom” holds a special significance for both. For Ma Rainey, it solidifies her control over her own career, a luxury often granted only to her white counterparts. (Her insistence on offering her nephew Sylvester [Dusan Brown] a prominent part in the album recording, despite his stutter, is a potent illustration of this.) As for Levee, the song is an opportunity to ascend above his circumstances, to achieve greatness despite the toxic racism that claimed the lives of his parents. Neither artist is willing to relinquish the marginal power this moment affords them, and so there’s a desperate intensity to their scenes, captivating and dread-inducing in equal measure. Boseman, in particular, delivers Wilson’s hefty dialogue with rapturous aplomb. Levee’s colleagues (and maybe the actor’s costars, too) seem as thunderstruck as the audience will, watching with equal parts fear and awe.
Wolfe, a renowned theater fixture in own right, leans liberally (and possibly bravely, considering how much hyperrealism is valued these days) into the stage roots of the material. The dialogue is heightened, the sets enchantingly artificial in a Hollywood backlot kind of way. Which doesn’t imply a total absence of subtlety. It’s more that Wolfe recognizes that Wilson’s work—especially Ma Rainey’s—is tailored for the theater. Interactions are no less authentic for being played to the back of the proverbial auditorium, and the environment lends itself to some truly buoyant moments, like Davis offering a sizzling performance in the recording studio or Boseman flaunting some enviable footwork. For whatever else it may be, the movie is a reverent tribute to both the medium of theater and Wilson’s indelible impact on it.
It’s important to note that there would not even be a show to admire without the trailblazing career of Ma Rainey, which Davis recognizes and honors with her otherworldly portrayal. Still, this is undoubtedly Boseman’s show and will likely live on as his greatest work. Witnessing him rise to meet the vivacity of titans like Davis and Turman (who, thankfully, is granted his own moment to shine with a sage monologue at the seat of a piano) is an unjust tease, promising something we won’t get to relish again. What makes the movie unbearably heartbreaking is just how well the star fits among the greats, delivering Wilson’s heady words with the electrifying verve of someone you’d think had decades of credits to his name. By the end, we’re left to wonder just how much Boseman and Levee had left to give the world. Here, reality and fiction blend in a way that’s nearly impossible to overlook.