Two things you need to know about the film version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” which arrives at the Kendall Square the day before Thanksgiving and on Netflix Dec. 18: First, Viola Davis all but vanishes into her role as the great, blowzy blues singer of the title. Second, Chadwick Boseman is revealed in the final fullness of his talent as Levee, an ambitious young trumpeter in Ma’s band. The former performance is a triumph. The latter marks a tragedy. Either would compel you to watch this movie, but on top of that it’s a play by August Wilson (1945-2005) and only the third to make it to the screen, after “Fences” in 2016 and “The Piano Lesson” on TV in 1995. The occasion counts as a triple blessing.
As well as a farewell to Boseman (“Black Panther,” “Get On Up,” “Marshall”), who died in August of colon cancer at the age of 43. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was filmed during the summer of 2019, and whether or not the actor knew he was terminal by then, his performance has a gaunt, electric ferocity that is in part written into the character and in part an artist making one last lunge for the brass ring. Levee has chops to burn, an eye for fast women and sharp shoes, and he’s the only one in Ma’s band who can hear the new sounds coming in on the air — the transformation of jazz into a music built around the soloist. Boseman makes the character’s eyes glitter with humor and rage and fear; Levee knows what he deserves and how far it remains out of his reach, and maybe so did the man playing him. It’s a magisterial performance.
But no one gets short shrift here, certainly not Davis as Ma, a figure defiantly self-invented: regal and demanding, with no patience for her quailing white manager (Jeremy Shamos) or Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), the exploitative producer bankrolling her recording session this hot Chicago day in 1927. From behind a mask of bleary mascara and a mouth racked with gold, Ma looks out at the world like she owns it — and owns the pretty little thing, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who’s her latest girlfriend. The character hints at a lineage that will someday lead to female rappers while rising from the savagery of the Jim Crow South and the Delta blues. Ma is elemental, rooted to the earth, and she wants nothing of Levee’s new arrangements. She wants to record her hit “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” the way she sings it for the people.
Director George C. Wolfe is a Broadway veteran (“Angels in America,” for one thing) who, for reasons unknown, has never tackled any of the 10 plays in Wilson’s celebrated “Pittsburgh Cycle.” Working with adapter Ruben Santiago-Hudson, he opens up “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the start, with a roadhouse sequence that allows Davis to enter at full strut and a photo montage of the Great Migration that brought Black Americans north in the first half of the 20th century. Then it’s into a basement rehearsal room for much of the film’s 94 minutes, the tension building as the producer presses Ma, Ma kicks back hard, Levee makes a play for Ma’s pretty little thing, and the three other members of the band try to diplomatically defuse the tension while testifying to their own journeys, individual yet representative.
Those three performances form the bedrock of the drama — Colman Domingo as levelheaded bandleader trombonist Cutler, introducing each number with “A one, a two, a you know what to do”; the go-along, get-along bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts); and the Solomonic old pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman). Wilson built the play as a battle of wills between the earth mother and the firebrand, each of them scarred — in Levee’s case literally — by what they have survived in a society built on profiting from and erasing their humanity, but the other three are equally Greek chorus, audience to the big show, and fellow victims. In the blind alley of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the crime is that the real enemy can never be fought — not in 1927 — so one inevitably turns on one’s own. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the film ends with a cover version of the title number conducted by an actor who bears a marked resemblance to Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who took early Black jazz and sold it to the white masses.
There’s enough tragedy there to keep “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in your memory for a long time, and that’s not counting the film’s status as a memorial for the fallen — for a great American playwright and a blazing American actor — and an ongoing testament to the vitality of those still with us. A one, a two, a you know what to do.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
Directed by George C. Wolfe. Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on the play by August Wilson. Starring Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman. At Kendall Square; begins streaming on Netflix Dec. 18. 94 minutes. R (language, some sexual content, brief violence)