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Review: Davis, Boseman light up 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman help bring adaptation of August Wilson's stage play to life

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

As acting showcases go, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is grand: Viola Davis gives her title character, the 1920s blues singer, so much steely presence that her stare can melt a hole through your TV screen, and the late Chadwick Boseman, in his final screen performance, leaves with what may have marked a new beginning for the actor.   

The pair brings might and heft to the adaptation of August Wilson's stage play, a somber rumination on art, race, class and the exploitation of Black music by white executives. It's a heavy work made lively by the ensemble cast, led by its two sterling leads.  

Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis and Colman Domingo in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

The setting is a Chicago recording studio in 1927, where Ma Rainey and her band are set to lay down a couple of songs for a pair of producers. First to arrive is her band: Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Slow Drag (Michael Potts), reliable veteran players who promptly report to the rehearsal space.

Then in comes Levee (Boseman), a ball of youthful exuberance, ambition, cockiness and confidence, all masking his deep insecurities from his scarred past. Boseman's electrifying performance is as layered as his character; he had portrayed so many icons in his work (Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall) that it's refreshing to see him breathe fresh new life into a fictional character. 

There's enough talk about Ma Rainey (Davis) before she even shows up to the studio that you know she's going to be a life force all her own — we first see her at the top of the film on stage in Georgia, completely in her element — and when she arrives, she's a whirlwind. She's not so much a diva as she is a woman fully in charge, who knows what she brings to the table and what she wants for it in return. If she's difficult, it's her bargaining chip, her only currency in a world of injustice. And if she refuses to work until you get her a Coke, you best get her a Coke, and it best be ice cold.  

Davis is a force so commanding that when she sucks down a bottle of Coke in the studio, time itself seems to stop. The push-pull between Davis and Boseman — their characters are both jockeying for the spotlight, as Boseman's Levee wants to do things his way and longs to break out on his own — carries "Ma Rainey" as its pacing begins to lag.

Director George C. Wolfe, in bringing the stage play to the screen, is trapped by the story's setting, which after awhile feels airless and stuffy. Perhaps that's part of the point. But by the time that stillness builds to a tragic incident in the third act, that action doesn't feel all the way earned. A bit of pullback is needed. 

Still, Davis and Boseman make "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" something special, and the ending packs an unexpected wallop that in a matter of seconds puts everything that came before it into perspective. In short, it's a showstopper.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

GRADE: B+

Rated R: for language, some sexual content and brief violence

Running time: 94 minutes

On Netflix