Netflix previews 'Ma Rainey' and Chadwick Boseman's final performance

Jake Coyle
Associated Press

New York — Netflix on Monday previewed George C. Wolfe's August Wilson adaptation “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,” showcasing Chadwick Boseman's final performance opposite Viola Davis' powerhouse blues singer.

The film, shot last year, was already one of the year's most anticipated, coming as the next chapter in Denzel Washington's ongoing project to turn Wilson's plays into films, following 2016's Oscar-winning “Fences.” But since the unexpected death in August of 43-year-old Boseman from colon cancer, “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" has taken on a elegiac aura. Boseman's performance has been said to be among the finest of his career, and the scenes previewed Monday only reinforced that notion.

Set in Chicago 1927, Davis stars as Ma Rainey, a fiery singer known as the “Mother of the Blues." Boseman plays Levee, an ambitious trumpeter aiming to launch himself with his own updated versions of Ma Rainey's songs.

“Levee got to be Levee!” exclaims Boseman, as Levee, in a passionate monologue. "And he don’t need nobody messing with him about the white man, ’cause you don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know Levee. You don’t know nothing about what blood I got! What kind of heart I got beating here!”

Michael Potts as Slow Drag, Chadwick Boseman as Levee and Colman Domingo as Cutler in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

The event Monday, presented by video conference, included a band, in masks, performing music from the film scored by Branford Marsalis. Netflix, which will debut it Dec. 18 on the streaming service, is expected to push “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” for Academy Awards consideration, particularly Davis and Boseman. (Wilson, himself, was the last person to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination in 2016, 11 year after his death, for the “Fences" script.)

Wolfe said Boseman “put his entire being into the part.” Davis described Boseman as unusually egoless. At the time of filming, Boseman was coming off the massive success of “Avengers: Endgame” and “Black Panther.”

“Not to compete with Chadwick's mother but Chadwick is my baby,” said Davis, who played Boseman's mother in the James Brown biopic “Get on Up.” “Chadwick was just an artist. That's just who he was.”

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, left, director George C. Wolfe, center, and Chadwick Boseman as Levee during the filming of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

“He loved it. He demanded it. He demanded it in every single way," added Davis, who like most wasn't aware of Boseman's illness during the shoot. "For someone so young it was incredible to watch that level of not mistaking your presence for the event.”

Davis, who won an Oscar for her performance in “Fences" and a Tony for the play's 2010 Broadway revival, plays Ma Rainey as a commanding, hip-swinging diva she said she modeled after her aunt.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was the first play Wilson wrote in 1984, and the only one of this 10-part Century Cycle not set in Pittsburgh. Washington has said he wants to adapt the other eight plays in a deal that moved to Netflix after first being at HBO.

“August lets us talk as people of color. Other people look at it and say, ‘Why do they go on and on?’ My whole thing is: Why not?" said Davis. "We have a lot to say, and there's been a muzzle placed on us or so long.”