Boseman, Davis Take Turns Shining in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

By Dorothy J. Gentry
Contributing Writer

Upon his surprising and untimely death in 2008, Heath Ledger was nominated for and won many posthumous awards including a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Night.

The late Chadwick Boseman should be no different. 

The beloved actor, who died in August at age 43 after a private, four-year battle  with colon cancer, should be nominated for and win an Oscar for his performance of Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the new Netflix film adapted from August Wilson’s play and produced by Denzel Washington. 

In the film—which began streaming on Netflix on December 18th—Boseman’s electrifies as Levee, a talented, over-confident musician haunted by a secret childhood trauma, in love with a good pair of shoes and determined to make his mark in the music world.

Boseman’s portrayal of Levee is a show-stopping scene stealer and, sadly, his last on-screen performance. He still looks like his most famous role The Black Panther and spends much of the movie jumping and sliding and hopping and moving all over the screen as he plays his horn and dreams of starting his own band. 

The story, set in 1927 in Chicago, centers around Ma Rainey (Viola Davis)—known as the Mother of the Blues—and her band as they gather in a recording studio for a session. Except for the first three or four minutes, the entire film takes place in this one setting in this one day. Tensions rise, tempers flare and truths are told during the session which ends in a brutal, shocking and sad way.

Boseman’s performance the entire film is mesmerizing, shows his range and helps you understand why his movies are loved by millions and why his death hurt fans so deeply. His three-minute tirade at God near the end of the film is bone-chilling. He dug deep for that performance.

As the title character affectionately called “Ma,” Davis is brilliant as the always sweating, always in need of a cold Coca-Cola blues legend. She gives a gritty,  raw, uncut and masterful performance. Her portrayal of the blues legend will leave you speechless. 

Like Boseman, Davis should be a heavy favorite come award season for a must-watch performance that shows the depth of her acting.

Ma Rainey also stars legendary actor Glynn Turman as the older, bandmate who waxes philosophically and wonders aloud throughout the movie why “colored folk always looking for a good time” instead of working toward a better life. His character of pianist Toledo meets a surprising fate, but his words embodying Black people’s struggle for respect and to be seen as human rings as true in 2020 as it did back then. 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a movie you will easily watch again and again. It’s worth your time.