Chadwick Boseman’s death is one of those moments we will probably always remember where we were when we heard the news. It’s not important what we were doing, it’s just important we all know what we were doing. It felt like a gut punch in a year where we’ve all been punched in the gut so often we didn’t realize there was anything left to hurt. I avoided writing about his death at the time because I simply wasn’t prepared to face facts. Basically, I’ll address that when I have more headspace to properly process what this means. In a world surrounded by so much grief, it was too difficult to add this on top of everything else. Besides, he still had another movie coming out, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, that people in the know were describing as perhaps his finest performance. Chadwick Boseman was gone, but there was still a sense he had one last gift to give us before he said his final goodbye. And I guess I wasn’t ready to say goodbye until we got to see that one remaining gift.
Which is why Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is such a difficult movie to watch. While watching, it’s impossible not to face facts: this is it. And, my goodness, Boseman is just so alive in this movie. This is not an “understated” performance. It’s like watching an athlete give it all on the field and we are left there wondering how this man isn’t just completely exhausted. Yeah, turns out Boseman did have one last gift for us. And, my gosh, he didn’t disappoint. He’s pure dynamite. It’s devastating.
Based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, it’s set around blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis, who is incredible) at her recording session in 1920s Chicago – which is fraught with problems and drama. Boseman plays Levee, a trumpeter in Ma Rainey’s band who doesn’t understand why he isn’t getting more attention for his musical talents. Boseman’s performance of Levee makes him both unbearably likable, mixed with just enough frightening ambition that leaves us wondering what Levee might be capable of doing.
But there’s no getting past that, besides some pretty nifty and stylized opening credits, this looks and feels like a play. And, look, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Normally I do prefer movies based on plays to feel a little more … open. But, here, especially under the unique circumstances, it becomes all about the acting. And the thing is, I probably won’t be saying near enough as I should be about Viola Davis’s performance. She brings it. But I know I’ll be watching many, many more great Viola Davis performances over the coming years. It just was never lost on me, while watching Boseman, that this was it. And I guess we’ll never know if he knew if this was it or not, but, I’ve used the word gift a few times already, but it truly is. To get this one last great performance as a way to say goodbye to this man so many people love, well there’s no other way to say it.
It just feels like in any other year we’d still be mourning Boseman. But this year, well, we still need to just get through it all before we can truly go back and look at what we all lost. But, in the meantime, we get to celebrate this great actor one more time. Who, here, is so full of life. Playing a character who is full of joy, pain, talent and anger. Again, it’s the kind of performance you just want to applaud. You can kind of envision it, the cast coming out to take their bows as Boseman steps forward one last time. And then Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom ended … and that was it. This whole time, thinking, well, there’s still one more movie coming, that is now over. It’s desperately sad. It’s the end of a career cut far too soon. But we won’t forget. And we won’t forget this one last shining jewel of a performance. And for that, we should all be grateful.
‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ will stream via Netflix on November 25th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.