Chadwick Boseman’s death came as a surprise to many.

Boseman (“Black Panther”) died in August after a four-year battle with colon cancer.

Four months later, Netflix released Boseman’s last film, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

It’s 1920s Chicago, and Boseman plays Levee, an ambitious, fast-talking trumpet player seeking bigger things than playing second fiddle to real-life mother of the blues Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (Viola Davis).

Levee and Ma’s musical sensibilities collide during an album recording session. Their musical tug-of-war is palpable even though they rarely share the screen, and tension runs high in and out of the studio.

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Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts and Colman Domingo in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." (Netflix)
Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts and Colman Domingo in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." (Netflix)

While “Ma” is based on the 1982 play by Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson, this film captures moments of in-broad-daylight threats as relevant today as they were in the 1920s.

Davis (“Fences,” also by Wilson) is the perfect force of nature to portray Ma Rainey.

She’s a title character with no dialogue for the first 20 minutes, but she well-establishes her force in a hotel lobby, on the street and facing a crowd of white men after a fender bender.

Davis illustrates in mere moments a switch from tenderness with her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown); softness and inner reflection with her band leader Culter (Colman Domingo); and spitting orders to her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos).

“If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley,” she says of white people.

Viola Davis stars in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Gertrude "Ma" Rainey was named the mother of blues in the early 1900s. (Netflix)
Viola Davis stars in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Gertrude "Ma" Rainey was named the mother of blues in the early 1900s. (Netflix)

And Davis fully immerses herself in this role.

She wears a gold mouthpiece, a horsehair headdress, a Vaseline-and-coal-dust combo on her eyelids. And, she was continually sprayed with water to maintain a thick layer of sweat, for which Ma Rainey was known.

And the talent continues with Boseman’s unforgettable performance as Levee.

In one moment, he is chumming around the rehearsal, swagger for days and on fire with bloated confidence. And in another, he is emotionally bankrupt with a far-off look.

Boseman captures this character’s trauma and rage and trembling insides, all while exhibiting a youthful and heartbreaking boyishness.

He by far has the most dialogue, and this deep dive into this complex character is the stuff of which prime storytelling is made.

Supporting players are equally raw, understated and necessary.

Glynn Turman (“Super 8”) as the soft-spoken and sage piano-playing Toledo. Michael Potts (“True Detective”) as the swilling Slow Drag. Taylour Paige (“White Boy Rick”) as the flighty Dussie May.

As with Wilson’s other works, “Ma Rainey” is driven by his signature lyrical dialogue. The characters jest and sway with pop and cadence, exhibiting their deepest and darkest.

While this wholly feels theatrical in limited locales, director George C. Wolfe (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”) does rev the visuals with a moving camera that matches a spitfire back and forth.

Wolfe also breaks scenes with jarring interludes to the rumbling streets of Chicago that further a feeling of unease.

What “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” captures is the blues as a connection, as spirituality, as testament to hardship, a means to freedom, a promise of joy.

“You don’t sing to feel good. You sing cause that's the way of understanding life,” says Ma.

And that’s what this film has to offer.

“Ma Rainey's Black Bottom”

Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo

Director: George C. Wolfe

Writers: Ruben Santiago-Hudson (screenplay), August Wilson (play)

Time: 1:34

Rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief violence

Available: Netflix



Melinda Lavine
Melinda Lavine

Melinda Lavine is a features reporter and movie reviewer for the News Tribune. Write to her at mlavine@duluthnews.com.