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Chadwick Boseman's last performance, in an August Wilson adaptation, is his best

Minneapolis Star Tribune logo Minneapolis Star Tribune 12/17/2020 Chris Hewitt, Star Tribune

The late Chadwick Boseman's final movie is his best.

A fierce Viola Davis plays the title role in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (that double entendre refers to a dance and her posterior), but Boseman, who died of cancer in August at age 43, has the lead. His Levee is a mercurial trumpeter, one of four men waiting for Rainey to deign to arrive at a Chicago studio where they're supposed to make a record. From the opening scenes, Levee — his namesake a dam that holds back a flood — has a chip on his shoulder, and the thrill of Boseman's performance is the spectacularly inventive way he reveals Levee's pain.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson play has been streamlined for film. Director George C. Wolfe trimmed an hour from the 1920s-set play, which largely consists of the band jawing about God and about how Black artists have been exploited by white men. Levee has a lot to say about both.

Early on, he chats with the studio owner, pitching his own music. Boseman turns on his "Black Panther" charisma, singing and dancing to beguile someone he knows holds all the power. Then, after the man departs, Boseman looks after him, as if contemplating the toll of fighting to thrive in a white man's world.

Afterward, his fellow musicians make fun of his code-switching and Levee responds with a childhood memory of watching his mother being raped by white men, an incident that left him with emotional and physical scars. It's a devastating monologue, but Boseman enacts it purely and softly — as if he has mourned it so many times that it's become just another piece of his life — concluding, "I'll just smile and say, 'Yes, sir' to whoever I please. I got my time coming to me."

The tragedy of "Ma Rainey" is that Levee's second sentence is almost certainly wrong. Ma Rainey would seem to have found her time — she was a real-life giant of the blues — but Davis' smeared, overdone makeup and bedraggled costumes testify that she clawed for everything she achieved. Rainey rails throughout the movie, fighting to get paid and to sing the way she knows is best. Although Davis raises her voice more than Boseman, she, too, trusts the camera will capture a heartsick look or a mumbled cry of pain.

Almost like a precursor to the Notorious B.I.G.'s lyric, "If you don't know, now you know," Rainey, who's almost always alone in the shot, insists, "We'll be ready to go when I say we're ready to go and that's the way it goes around here."

As a film adaptation, "Ma Rainey" is far superior to Denzel Washington's take on Wilson's "Fences" (Washington also produced this one) because it doesn't treat the material like a revered document. Towering though Wilson's work is, it needs to be rethought for the screen, and Wolfe and screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson recalibrate the script to focus less on dialogue than subtle interactions between characters. Yes, some of the onetime St. Paul resident's rhythmic language is lost, but the power remains.

Like his actors, Wolfe opts to go quiet on the big, dramatic moments. At the climax, there's no sound at all as the characters react to violence that is even more shocking because Boseman plays it so tenderly.

In live theater, that kind of acting earns standing ovations. Here, it earns these final — and in keeping with the style of the film, plain — words: "Dedicated to Chadwick Boseman, in celebration of his artistry and heart."

Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Rating: R for language and brief violence.

Streaming: Netflix.

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