The late Chadwick Boseman shot to international fame as the African Chief T’Challa in the Marvel super- hero action spectacular, ‘Black Panther’. But it is in the jazz inspired, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that he reveals his true acting genius as the mentally and emotionally unbalanced trumpeter Levee.
The film is based on the play by August Wilson that was a huge hit on Broadway and at The National Theatre. The story is confined to a recording session in Chicago in 1927 where the Queen of the Blues-Ma Rainey is to record a group of her songs with her backing band. She is notorious for being difficult as she confronts the white recording manager and her own obsequious manager over their exploitation of Black musicians. One of the group, the trumpeter Levee, is a young cocky youngster with his own plans to further his career while having an eye for Ma’s young girlfriend. But he is arrogant and unbalanced with a back history of abuse and loss that is a cocktail for tragedy.
Both Viola Davis as Ma and Boseman as Levee give powerhouse performances that reveal the struggles Black artists have in the face of racial segregation. Davis appears as an overweight heavily made-up bundle of intolerance and rudeness compensated by a divine talent while Bosman is a mix of talent, insecurity and rage. Both are superb but with Chadwick in two blistering monologues we see an actor at his finest. He died a year after completing the film. The film is on Netflix and is a worthy memorial to him.