Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (4 stars)

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

The great Chadwick Boseman bows out in this fine August Wilson adaptation, co-starring Viola Davis

The death of the heroically talented Chadwick Boseman, aged just 43, is one of the many horrors that 2020 has thrown at us and, not even four months later, his final film is already upon us. It's an adaptation of the landmark 1982 play from Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson (Fences), led by Viola Davis no less, and is a sultry, talky, tense and, yes, extremely well-acted piece.

Davis takes the role of 'Mother of the Blues' Ma Rainey and does something marvellous with it. She's a fierce and physically imposing presence as an outrageous egotist, whose difficult, demanding personality is transparently a front to mask how deeply wounded she is by the entrenched prejudices of the time. With fear and anger in her eyes, Davis allows you to see it all.

It's a story set in the Chicago of 1927, where the singer is recording the titular track, but Ma herself is from the South. She's something of a legend and, given the amount of money she makes him, it's in the interests of her wheedling white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) to keep her sweet. Boseman plays tempestuous trumpeter Levee, who we see literally stealing Ma's spotlight on stage. He aches to take things in his own musical direction, and has his eye on Ma's easily diverted girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Colman Domingo is Cutler, the exasperated band leader who is forever trying to smooth things over. A musical masterpiece is born of sweat, flared tempers and ice-cold Coca Cola.

It's a painfully plausible picture of the exploitation of Black musicians, brought to screen with enough energy and period elan by director George C Wolfe (best known as the Tony Award winning theatre director of Angels in America), with Ruben Santiago-Hudson entrusted with Wilson's precious, often still-pertinent words.

If Davis has the starring role, Boseman gets an awful lot to chew on by her side, and his character is every bit as complex. Levee is also very much a product of the time. With violent injustice and vengeance buried in his past, he's determined to pull himself up; he has talent and zeal in spades, but it's a system that's built to leave him kicking and screaming, at best. It's a vivid, multifaceted performance, delivered in the throes of terminal cancer, that brims with cinematic confidence and a heartbreaking lust for life.

Available to watch in cinemas and on Netflix from Fri 18 Dec.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • US
  • 1h 34min
  • 15
  • Directed by: George C. Wolfe
  • Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Glynn Turman

Film adaptation of August Wilson's play about a trailblazing blues singer and an ambitious horn player in her band.