In his final movie performance, Chadwick Boseman plays a desperate man. Levee, a horn player in blues queen Ma Rainey’s band, is young, volatile, explosive and constantly striving to get more out of life than what’s been dealt to him. Over the course of an afternoon, as he and the band congregate in a music studio to work on Ma’s latest record, Levee’s outward bravado and inner pain eventually result in a tragic but not altogether surprising climax.
Based on the August Wilson play and directed by veteran theater and film director George C. Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is not a definitively cinematic movie. That is, it’s very much a movie based on a play, and what it lacks in sweeping visual storytelling and movement it makes up for entirely with character. This is a movie about monologues. This is a movie about performance. And while in some ways this creates a kind of weakness in the film, it’s incredibly fitting as Boseman’s final on-screen role, because all you can think about anyway is the weight and meaning and finality of his performance.
Every glance, every grimace, every boisterous laugh, every tear, every wisecrack that Levee makes takes on a new significance. Certain lines feel eerie and momentous simply because he is saying them, like when Levee, arguing with the other boys in the band, declares: “Death, death got some style. Death will kick your ass and make you wish you never been born. That’s how bad death is. But you can rule over life. Life ain’t nothing.”
This is not a distraction. If anything, Boseman’s performance, playing off of Viola Davis, invigorates the film with an energy and an urgency that keeps us engaged. As an actor, that was perhaps one of Boseman’s greatest talents: Whether playing the lead role in films like “Black Panther” and “Get on Up” or as part of ensemble, as in one of his other final roles in “Da 5 Bloods,” he was always a grounding force, a star who shined while letting others shine, as well.
Case in point: the opening scene of the film, where Ma Rainey and Levee jockey for dominance on stage at a music hall, with her powerful voice, him with his booming horn. Levee wants what Ma has: her fame, her money, her success, even her sultry girlfriend. And, more than anything, the respect that she demands and seems to get from the white folks who’ve commissioned her latest record. Onstage, as he brazenly takes a horn solo, the spotlight hovers on Levee for one brief, shining moment, but then rests firmly back on Ma as she bellows, “Hey daddy! Please come home to me!” Levee retreats into the darkness of the background. We’re dazzled and captivated by Ma Rainey. But we still look for him. The scene sets a tone — this is still very much Davis’ film, but Boseman provides all the tension, all the stakes.
There seems to be this hope that talented actors end their careers with films that tie up their on-screen legacy neatly, and if they don’t, this is somehow a bad thing. But “Ma Rainey” isn’t a neat ending, and that makes it far more interesting. As years progress, Boseman’s performance as Black Panther will most likely be the role with which he is most strongly associated and celebrated. The “Black Panther” movie, after all, was and is a huge cultural phenomenon, symbolic of so much more than just a fictional Black superhero.
But it’s Levee, perhaps, which will be the performance that encapsulates or rather immortalizes so much of the legend that was lost. It’s impossible to know, definitively, what was going through Boseman’s mind as he played this character. Unless one actually experiences it, I imagine it’s impossible to fully grasp what it truly means to be an artist, fighting to keep creating until you no longer can. But there’s a sense, as he blazes across each frame, that the performance is heavily imbued with the weight of what it is: a farewell, a conclusion to a brief yet inspiring body of work.