If only Chadwick Boseman were still with us — if we knew that we had years and maybe decades of performances from him to look forward to, from superheroes to Shakespeare — we might watch “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” differently. As it is, we watch the stellar Netflix version of August Wilson’s play with a palpable sense of loss. Boseman, who died last summer of cancer at the age of just 43, glides and croons and dances his way through this movie, looking thin and incandescent; he’s a lit candle, beautifully flickering. You watch, wishing time could hold still and the candle could keep burning.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is far more than a brilliant young actor’s final performance, but you might need to watch it a second time, as I did, to get its full effect; that’s due simply to what we know outside of the movie, not anything that’s lacking within it. Directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from Wilson’s play, which made its Broadway debut in 1984, the film is the second in an ongoing project to film the playwright’s acclaimed 10-play cycle, following “Fences” in 2016. (Wilson, originally from Pittsburgh, lived the last 15 years of his life in Seattle; he died in 2005.) It takes place on a summer day in 1927 Chicago, in a nondescript studio where the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is recording a few songs with her musicians. Ma and her band are Black, her manager and producer are white, and the story unfolds as a series of confrontations over power — creative, financial, sexual — as that yellow-hot afternoon wears on.
Unlike most of the characters in Wilson’s cycle (it’s the second in the series, and the only one not set in Pittsburgh), Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was a real person; we see her gold-toothed smile in a soft black-and-white photo at the film’s end. The remarkable Davis imbues her with weary grandeur: This is a woman who knows too much, and is tired of what she knows. Her voice is low; her walk is heavy; and her smudged, sweaty makeup makes her face look like a bruised mask. There’s no glamour here, but Ma doesn’t care; she’s in charge, a fact that she has to constantly point out to the men around her. She knows the manager and producer are using her — “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.” — and she’s determined to sing her songs her way, and get paid on her terms. Davis plants her in a chair like a tree that grew there, not moving until she’s satisfied.
Boseman plays Levee, a young cornet player in her band; he’s eager to move Ma into more adventurous jazz (he’s an arranger) and is drawn to Ma’s young girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Both pursuits are dangerous, but Levee is fearless. Boseman makes him, in the film’s brief 94 minutes, an entire novel; a man of dreams and fears and art and agony, haunted by trauma (which he retells in a devastating monologue), transformed by music. When he plays, his entire body seems to become the cornet, with the notes emerging from somewhere deep inside him. You believe that he’s playing, just as you believe it’s Davis singing (Ma’s songs, except for a brief serenade to Dussie Mae, are dubbed by soul singer Maxayn Lewis).
Wolfe makes the play a reminder of social history: We’re given some context of the Great Migration, in which millions of Black Americans made their way north from the rural South, and are shown a vivid, wordless scene in which two Black men enter a deli, immediately silencing the white customers. But it’s also a celebration of language — Wilson’s glorious storytelling is given its due by this masterful ensemble cast, who weave colorful tapestries with his words — and of music’s transformative power. (The eloquent score, which sometimes seems to chime in like a character, is by Branford Marsalis.)
“The blues help you get out of bed in the morning,” says Davis’ Ma, slowly caressing her words. “You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something added by that song.” There isn’t a happy ending in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” but it leaves you with a bit of hope; a matter-of-fact, moving reminder of how a song — and an actor — can leave an imprint on the world.