Chadwick Boseman's resume was already filled with memorable work when he passed away in August. Whether it was real-life heroes like Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall or the larger-than-life superhero in "The Black Panther," Boseman's range showed no bounds.
But the brilliant actor may have saved his best performance for last in the August Wilson adaptation "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Boseman totally commands the screen in a way few actors before him have ever done – a volcanic performance that serves as the anchor for another strong screen adaptation of Wilson's brilliant prose.
"Ma Rainey" takes place over a single afternoon in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians arrive in a study to work with Ma Rainey (Viola Davis), known as the Mother of Blues.
The band includes Levee (Boseman), an ambitious trumpet player who has designs on breaking out on his own.
As the session drags on, with Rainey battling for control from the white management in charge of the recordings, tensions start to rise – building to events that will forever change the lives of everyone in the studio.
Director George C. Wolfe wisely chooses to keep the film confined mostly to the studio and does not try to make this adaptation go beyond its stage roots too much. The decision brings the focus more on the exceptional cast – headlined by Davis and Boseman.
In any other film, Davis would be the story here for a performance in which she effortlessly dissolves into the role, to the extent that she is barely recognizable. Rainey is full of fire and sass, a woman who understands the music game and uses that knowledge to get things done. This is Davis at her very best, a role that will certainly garner awards consideration.
But as good as Davis is, this is ultimately Boseman's movie. It's a performance with so much energy, so much passion, you can't help but wonder if the actor knew while he was filming it that it might well be his final film.
If that was the case, Boseman certainly left everything he had in this work. It's a bittersweet swan song – one that shows how special of a talent he was, but also a bit sad knowing how much more he could have done.
Boseman was truly a once-in-a-generation-type actor. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" allows us one last glimpse of his immense talent.