Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: Chadwick Boseman shines in his final screen role

Chadwick Boseman delivers a heart-rending final performance in stage-to-screen adaptation Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Damon Smith reviews...

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: Michael Potts as Slow Drag, Chadwick Boseman as Levee and Colman Domingo as Cutler
Damon Smith

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (15, 94 mins) Drama/Musical/Romance. Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Glynn Turman, Jonny Coyne, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown, Taylor Paige. Director: George C Wolfe.

Released: December 4 (selected cinemas) and streaming on Netflix from December 18

IN A year which has galvanised global support for the Black Lives Matter movement, a film version of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom – the second entry of August Wilson's 10-strong cycle of plays documenting the African American experience – was always destined to be a cultural touchstone.

The death of Chadwick Boseman in August, four years after a colon cancer diagnosis which he kept private from Black Panther fans, intensifies the emotional resonance of George C Wolfe's beautifully crafted picture and solidifies this study of white exploitation in 1927 Chicago as a frontrunner for the 2021 Academy Awards.

An elegant dedication to Boseman "in celebration of his artistry and heart" after the screen fades to black acknowledges a powerhouse final performance.

As a fiery-tempered trumpeter, who is scarred by tragedy as a child and blinded by ambition as a broken man, he doesn't strike a single false note and delivers a centrepiece monologue with tightly coiled despair and fury.

In the showy title role, Viola Davis bristles with righteous indignation as her bisexual singer fights openly for every privilege that her God-given talent affords her.

After one heated exchange with white studio producers, she sagely observes: "They don't care nothin' about me. All they want is my voice."

Four musicians – trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), trumpeter Levee (Boseman), bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) – arrive at a recording studio in the heart of Chicago to prepare for a session with formidable singer Ma Rainey (Davis).

Before Ma arrives, Levee tells other members of the band that he intends to branch out on his own.

Cutler reminds the ambitious upstart of his responsibilities – "You play whatever Ma say" – but Levee refuses to surrender a tight grasp on his dream, boldly proclaiming, "I ain't like you Cutler. I got talent".

When Ma finally blows in from the street with her stuttering nephew (Dusan Brown) and companion Dussie Mae (Taylor Paige) in tow, her volcanic temper prickles studio producers Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Irvin (Jeremy Shamos).

The heat inside the studio rises and Levee's arrogance puts him on a collision path with Ma and the rest of the band.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom doesn't stray far from strong theatrical roots.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson's adaptation relishes the interplay between characters, allowing the natural rhythm of dialogue to dictate pace.

Director Wolfe avoids flashy improvisations behind the camera.

He has the benefit of the sheet music of myriad stage productions including a 2003 Broadway production pairing Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S Dutton and an Olivier Award-winning 2016 revival at the National Theatre in London, which ran 40 minutes longer and allowed underlying tensions to simmer before turning up the heat to a furious boil.

Rating: 8/10

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