Chadwick Boseman surges onto the screen as fast-talking trumpeter Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” like a man on an electrified tightrope — balancing precariously between hope and cynicism, humor and sadness, joy and pain, and love and hate.
Unlike with some of Boseman’s other famous characters who’ve had a clear moral center from the start, it’s not clear what Levee, a creation of legendary playwright August Wilson, has up his sleeve. Handsome and wiry, he’s constantly on edge, and behind even his most brilliant smile there’s a whiff of something amiss. We don’t really know what we’re looking at. But we sure don’t want to look away.
Boseman’s performance in this film adaptation of Wilson’s 1982 play, lovingly directed by George C. Wolfe, would be heartbreaking even if the actor hadn’t tragically lost his life to cancer this year.
But watching it now, that knowledge informs every moment, as one imagines the challenges he must have faced in a famously taxing role that was clearly so important to him. It goes without saying that the performance is brilliant, and yes, electric, but it’s also heroic. If there had to be a final role, what a gift that it was this, an exclamation point to a career that seems ever more momentous.
Boseman isn’t the only volcanic force in “Ma Rainey,” a meditation on power, race, sex and commerce in early 20th-century America treated with sensitivity and grace by Wolfe, with a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and score by Branford Marsalis. There’s also the matter of the titular Ma herself, played by a superb Viola Davis, nearly unrecognizable in her broadened silhouette, mouth of gold teeth, and coat upon coat of eye makeup. Together, she and Boseman conduct a master class.