The title card reads “Chicago, Illinois,” and the sign above the stairway leading to the elevated train stop says, “S. Halsted St,” and the year is 1927. A rail-thin, handsome Black man in a pinstriped suit and one-size-too-big fedora takes in the surroundings, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and he positively beams with delight when two young women hurry past him, chattering and oblivious to his presence.
“Hey, hey, good morning Chicago!” the man says, as much to himself as the ladies — and then he dashes across the street because a pair of flashy, mustard-colored shoes has caught his eye, and he WILL be sporting those shoes in a flash.
Chadwick Boseman plays the man with a spring in his step and a chip on his shoulder — a greatly gifted and braggadocious trumpeter named Levee — in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which turned out to be Boseman’s final film role before he passed away last August. It is impossible to totally cast aside that tragic reality when watching George C. Wolfe’s Oscar-worthy adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play, but when Boseman posthumously receives a best actor nomination, it will be difficult to imagine anyone who actually saw the performance will believe the accolade was boosted by sentiment. This work stands on its own as the best of Boseman’s career and one of the most transcendent performances of the year. Whether Levee is talking trash to his older and more traditional bandmates, commanding the stage and the recording studio, playing with fire by seducing the one woman he should be leaving alone or ripping into a raw and searing monologue about a childhood tragedy that bruised his very soul, Boseman is in utter command of his character. It is a beautiful, sad, wonderful, bittersweet thing to behold.
It’s a pity Pittsburgh was tabbed to stand in for 1920s Chicago in “Black Bottom,” but given this is an adaptation of a stage work and the great bulk of the story transpires over the course of one afternoon and evening at a recording studio, we can go with it. Director Wolfe and the production team have re-created a gorgeous period-piece look, and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler moves his camera about in smooth and steady fashion, wisely allowing the words of August Wilson (with a screenplay adaptation by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and the indelible lead performances by Boseman and an unforgettably powerful Viola Davis to carry the day — with considerable assistance from the brilliant supporting cast.
Davis’ Ma Rainey is a thunderstorm of unique vocal talent, room-filling presence and next-level diva behavior who is aware of the power she wields as an popular and influential star but equally cognizant of her standing as a Black woman making records for white executives who will make far more money from her voice than she ever will. After a dazzling opening performance number in a Georgia tent show where Ma Rainey in all her heavy makeup and gold-teeth glory brings down the house, the action shifts to that recording studio in Chicago, where Ma’s bandleader and trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) await the arrival of the perpetually tardy Levee and of course the star herself, who will show up when she’s damn good and ready, not giving two whiffs about the concerns of her longtime manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and the record company owner Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), a “time is money” sort who is finding it increasingly difficult to coddle Ma and her whims.
Fresh off a car accident and a heated exchange in the street right outside the studio, Ma comes bursting in with her mistress Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) in tow, makes it clear she’s not going to sing a word until she gets her Coca-Cola — and by the way, Sylvester is going to perform the spoken-word intro to the new record, even though he has a pronounced stammer. Anyone got a problem with that?
Meanwhile, in a rehearsal space below the studio, Levee mocks the old-school musicians for their “jug band” style and peacocks about the room, prattling on about the group he’s going to form and the songs he’s submitting to the seemingly interested record exec Sturdyvant. When the old-timers mock Levee for sucking up to the white man, Levee rocks the room into stunned silence with his account of a horrific series of events that destroyed his family when he was just 8 years old — events that are still shaping Levee’s mindset when it comes to dealing with matters of race.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is punctuated by rousing musical performances but is perhaps most memorable for its depiction of the everyday injustices endured by Black Americans in the 1920s and in the decades before that and in the century since. (Glynn Turman’s Toledo delivers a heart-stopping powerful monologue about how Blacks are the leftovers in the stew of life.) Bathed in rich sepia tones perfectly suiting the era and humming along at a crisp 94 minutes, this is a nearly perfectly constructed film with nary a wasted beat.