Shocking the world and making 2020 suck even more than it already did, Chadwick Boseman was announced dead this past August at just 43-years-old. Boseman had been battling colon cancer since 2016, despite continuing to work. What a life, what a career.
Chadwick Boseman's final film role is in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," the Netflix film-adaptation of the August Wilson "The American Century Cycle" play. Boseman is Levee, a young, talented and ambitious musician ready to take the world by storm, but who is held back by something raging deep inside of him. The parallels between fiction and reality can sometimes be shocking, and in many ways, both Boseman and Levee had no chance in overcoming their ailments.
Set mostly in a Chicago recording studio in the late 1920s, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was a song by "The Mother of the Blues," recording star Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). Her band has gathered in the studio to record an album, with her white managers (Jeremy Shamos and Jonny Coyne) looming in the booth above (talk about your metaphors). There's tension so think you could cut it with a knife, mostly created by the rebellious trumpeter, Levee, and the other band members (Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts). Ma Rainey herself is quite the handful, showing up to the session late and demanding that she have a Diet Coke brought in before singing a single note.
You can tell that this story originated on the stage...there are some wordy monologues and exchanges, and except for a few short scenes, you can imagine the whole thing playing out in front of a candid audience. As expected, Boseman is simply a master at his craft, and he lights up the scenes he's in (which is nearly every scene of the entire film). Levee was Wilson's symbol of the new generation, raised post-slavery but pre-Civil Rights, who could see the proverbial freedom of the promise land, but who were so enraged that it became a negative attribute. Here was the older generation, like the band mates and Ma Rainey herself, finding their happiness and freedom within the constructs of the existing system. Levee was looking to burn down the establishment and rise up a self-made man.
The brilliance of the play looks at the pitfalls of complacency but also the dangers of unbridled hatred and fury. It's an important work to be sure. But not surprisingly, the death of Chadwick Boseman looms large over "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," and brings with it an enhanced sense of tragedy. In a world where Chadwick was still with us, this film might have made the audience cry by the end. But now, many might find themselves wiping tears right from the get-go.
Other than the terrific performances by Boseman, Davis and the entire ensemble, the film version of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" doesn't do all that much that hadn't been done on stage. This is not a knock. When the material originates with August Wilson, not much else is needed.
Note: A good complimentary film to watch along with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is the Netflix documentary called "Giving Voice," which takes a look at the annual August Wilson Monologue Competition, and analyzes the work and influence of August Wilson on the youth of today.
Genre: Drama, Music.
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes.
Based on the August Wilson play.
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Jeremy Shamos, Michael Potts.
Directed by George C. Wolfe ("You're Not You," "Nights in Rodanthe").
"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is on Netflix on Friday, December 18th, 2020.
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