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Chadwick Boseman's Last Movie, 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,' Reviewed


There's a lot of Oscar buzz around Viola Davis as the blues-singing title character in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." But critic Bob Mondello says the film version of August Wilson's play is all but hijacked by Ma's trumpet player, and he's played by the late Chadwick Boseman.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In the play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," Ma doesn't show up until almost an hour in. It's a power move on her part. She likes folks to wait, but no way the movie's going to keep Viola Davis under wraps for that long. Director George C. Wolfe gives us a glimpse of her right at the start.


MAXAYN LEWIS: (As Ma Rainey, singing) My bell rang this morning, didn't know which way to go.

MONDELLO: A rural Georgia tent show, Ma dripping sequins and sweat, waving an ostrich feather fan as if that could ward off the heat she's generating. Everything about her glistens from coal-black eyeshadow to gold-capped teeth to vocals provided by Maxayn Lewis and the crowd in the palm of her hand.


LEWIS: (As Ma Rainey, singing) I had the blues so bad, I sat down on my floor.

MONDELLO: This is Ma's audience - Southern, Black, old-school. She knows what they like. The company she records for - it's in Chicago, white, on the lookout for the new.


JONNY COYNE: (As Mel Sturdyvant) I want you to get her in here, record those songs on that list and get her out just like clockwork.

JEREMY SHAMOS: (As Irvin) Like clockwork, Mel.

COYNE: (As Mel Sturdyvant) And that horn player, the one who gave me those songs - is he going to be here today? I want to hear more of that sound.

MONDELLO: That would be Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman with a hunger for fame that has Ma's three more experienced backup players rolling their eyes.


CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As Levee) I ain't like you, Cutler. I got talent.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Oh.

BOSEMAN: (As Levee) Me and this horn - we is tight. If my daddy had known I was going to turn out like this, he would have named me Gabriel.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Oh.

BOSEMAN: (As Levee) I'm going to get me a band and make me some records. I got style.

GLYNN TURMAN: (As Toledo) Oh, everybody got style. Style ain't nothing but keeping the same idea from beginning to end. Everybody got it.

BOSEMAN: (As Levee) Everybody can't play like I do. Everybody can't have they own band.

MONDELLO: When August Wilson writes dialogue, there's always a musical cadence. In the rehearsal room, Levee's the soloist. The others lay down the bass, add grace notes.


COLMAN DOMINGO: (As Cutler) This is an accompaniment band. You play Ma's music when you here.

BOSEMAN: (As Levee) I got sense enough to know that. Hell, I can look at y'all and see what kind of band it is. I can look at Toledo and see what kind of band it is.

TURMAN: (As Toledo) Oh, Toledo ain't said nothing to you. Don't get Toledo started now.

MICHAEL POTTS: (As Slow Drag) Is you all going to rehearse the music, or ain't you?

MONDELLO: On stage, Wilson can keep this sort of thing going scene after glorious scene. For the screen, the banter is compressed and stripped to essentials while the visuals get ever so slightly opened up - glimpses of 1920s Chicago, Ma scowling at anyone who dares look her way, letting them know that she's not to be trifled with, especially when it comes to her songs. And Levee's got a new arrangement for one of those.


VIOLA DAVIS: (As Ma Rainey) I know they ain't rehearsing Levee's "Black Bottom." I know I ain't hearing that.

SHAMOS: (As Irvin) Ma, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. Levee's version of that song - it really picks it up.

DAVIS: (As Ma Rainey) I know what he done to that song. I don't like to sing it that way. I'm doing it the old way.

SHAMOS: (As Irvin) That's what people want now, Ma. They want something they can dance to.

DAVIS: (As Ma Rainey) I don't care what you say, honey. Levee ain't messing up my song.

MONDELLO: Thick body padding helps make Viola Davis all but unrecognizable as Ma fumes and fulminates. Boseman, meanwhile, is practically swimming in Levee's suit, his body gaunt from the cancer that took him just months after filming finished. But his eyes flash, and his speeches burn. No character he's played has ever been more heartbreakingly alive, whether brimming with excitement or seething with rage.


BOSEMAN: (As Levee) 'Cause you don't know nothing about me. You don't know Levee. You don't know nothing about what kind of blood I got, what kind of a heart I got beating here.

MONDELLO: Boseman has two scorching soliloquies that would prompt tears even if they weren't agonizing reminders of what we've lost with his passing, and they're hardly the only riveting moments in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Everybody gets one or two, and Ma has plenty - quieter, maybe, but no less telling.


DAVIS: (As Ma Rainey) They back there right now, calling me all kinds of names, calling me everything but a child of God. But they can't do nothing else because they ain't got what they wanted yet. Soon as they get my voice down on one of them recording machines, then it just like I be some whore. And they roll over and put their pants on. They ain't got no use for me then.

MONDELLO: August Wilson's tale of what it means to be a Black artist in a racist society is hardly new, but the telling of that tale has never been more artful or more urgently performed than it is in this incarnation of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." I'm Bob Mondello.


LEWIS: (As Ma Rainey, singing) I want to see that dance they call the black bottom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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