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Watching Chadwick Boseman in his final movie, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” is pure heartbreak.
The mind hops between wonderment at a sterling performance that switches from mischief to despair with balletic grace, to paralyzing depression knowing this is the last time we’ll see this talent in action.
Boseman, also the star of “Black Panther,” died in August from colon cancer at age 43.
In the very good “Ma Rainey,” the actor plays Levee, a hotshot 32-year-old trumpet player for the title character, the legendary Mother of the Blues, in the 1920s. They’re in Chicago at a recording studio to lay down some of her now-classic tracks.
It will not be a pleasant afternoon.
While his bandmates Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and Toledo (Glynn Turman) all but bow to the famous Ma (Viola Davis), an impertinent Levee has big dreams for more modern music — and wants his own band performing it. He butts heads with her and everybody else.
Based on August Wilson’s Broadway play, “Ma Rainey” is not boring behind-the-music drivel, however. With tense dramatic flare, Wilson seized a bittersweet moment when black musicians became who everyone in America wanted to hear from, but were also powerless in the industry that needed them.
Enter Ma: The singer of “Prove It on Me Blues” and “Trust No Man” here is portrayed as mean, no-nonsense and all business. Don’t have a cold Coke? Then no singing. Her white manager and record producer are that shocked she acts so brusquely, but the shrewd woman knows that her voice pads their coffers. She can do whatever the hell she wants.
The layered role is some of Davis’ best film acting yet, because she turns cliché diva behavior into a survival tactic. Her Ma is terrifying, but only to disguise that she is breakable. The Oscar winner, while mostly lip-syncing to the voice of Maxayn Lewis, still sells the blues tunes like they’re cold water on the Fourth of July.
Levee is the opposite of Ma. A charmer, he’ll do anything to please his bosses and get his own songs recorded. When Levee’s bandmates chide him for kowtowing to white guys, Boseman unleashes a scorching speech about the character’s perilous road.
As we saw with 2016’s “Fences,” starring Davis and Denzel Washington, Wilson’s plays are tricky to put on-screen because they don’t whisk you to many locations. Long scenes, and sometimes whole shows, take place in just one room. Broadway vet George C. Wolfe gets around that barrier by snaking his camera through the actors — almost like a dance. The shots rarely stay put and have real showbiz energy.
What holds the film back the most is the design. Chicago is shown as both bright and shiny and bathed in old-timey sepia. The style is not unattractive so much as inauthentic, and it’s hard to believe they are when and where they say they are.
The acting transcends that, though, and transports us. The seasoned band is a tight, fleshed-out foil for fresh-faced Boseman. I’m partial to Domingo, who has been an electric presence in the theater for years.
But it’s the brilliant Boseman who stays with you in the end. The late actor will surely be nominated for an Oscar.