Chadwick Boseman made his name in films centred around African American icons, from Jackie Robinson to James Brown to T’Challa, which under his watch became a Black icon in its own right.
It’s therefore fitting that the late Black Panther star is more than likely to win an Oscar for his part in another historical tale about a seminal Black celebrity, even if Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t exactly set the world on fire.
Set over a hot and heated afternoon in 1927 Chicago, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis – and brilliant, of course) has an album to record and little time for anything else. Especially Levee (Boseman), an ambitious and skilled member of her band with his own eye on glory. Both virtuoso musicians with a virtuoso’s ego, Rainey and the fictional Levee predictably lock horns — and over more than just the music.
But it’s the setting of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is based on the 1982 August Wilson play, which is the most interesting thing about it. At the same time that sound entered the movies, blues music was hurtling through a chaotic transition of its own: from the playful, cabaret-influenced fare symbolised by Ma Rainey to something more suave and sophisticated, Levee’s home turf. Rainey understood exactly why the blues could be so powerful, but Levee has the vitality to throw it into a new era, as well as something much more lucrative: a white audience.
Though there are the trappings of a memorable film — strong performances, a moving script, competent enough visuals — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is constrained by its austere runtime (97 minutes simply isn’t long enough to tell this story) and, ultimately, a hastened ending which leaves more questions than answers. While Boseman’s performance is perhaps the flashiest of his too-short career, the character is far too thinly drawn to be the film’s centre of gravity. It all feels more like a vignette than a fleshed-out film. As in most films, more Viola Davis would have been wise.
Having said that, Boseman is bewitching and brilliant in his final role. The overriding experience of watching him do characteristically effective work is sadness, but it’s as good a reminder as any of the scale of his screen presence and talent