Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a big-screen adaptation of August Wilson's 1982 play, may make you sorrowful. It did me. Not only does the material contain a fair measure of heartbreak but it also marks the last performance by Chadwick Boseman, the actor who died of colon cancer last August at the age of 43.
Best known for playing T'Challa in Black Panther, Boseman also portrayed a variety of signature historical figures -- Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and James Brown.
Ma Rainey offered Boseman a different kind of opportunity. He plays Levee, a mercurial trumpet player with a fiery temper and a big talent. Levee plays trumpet in a band assembled by Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), a woman known as Mother of the Blues. Levee's talent may be too big for Ma, who keeps tight control over the music she performs.
Director George C. Wolfe's playing with an A-team. In addition to Boseman and Davis, he's helped in his efforts by Glynn Turman, who plays Toledo, and Colman Domingo who portrays Cutler, two other members of Ma's musical ensemble.
Although Wolfe attempts to open the play for the screen, there's no mistaking Ma Rainey’s origins as a powerhouse piece of theater, even as performances from Boseman and Davis ignite the sparks of conflict.
Much of the movie takes place in a Chicago basement room where the band members await Ma's arrival. They're getting ready for a recording session, having just blown in from one of Ma's gangbuster tours of the Black south. The year: 1927.
As portrayed by Davis, Ma is a woman of tornadic force. She wants things her way -- and if that means holding up the session while someone runs to the store to get her a bottle of Coca Cola then that's how things will be.
Ma has her eye on Levee for other than musical reasons. Her lover (Taylour Paige) has caught Levee's attention. He has no qualms about moving in on the highly territorial Ma, a woman so strong-willed she insists that her stuttering nephew (Dusan Brown) deliver a spoken introduction to one of her signature tunes.
A complex character, Levee wants to start his own band. He has a taste for independence: Wilson gives him a monologue that allows us to understand the raging forces that incite his mood shifts, as well as his refusal to kowtow to the older members of Ma's band.
Wilson's play includes plenty of emotive fireworks and the supporting cast sets them off with old-pro precision that does justice to each character and to the movie's larger themes, among them, the way whites exploit black talent.
A fine cast makes us feel every bit of humor and sting in Wilson's writing, but Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has an effect Wilson couldn't have anticipated: It leaves us wondering at the cruel fate that ended Boseman's life too soon.