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'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Is A Parting Gift From Actor Chadwick Boseman

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The actor Chadwick Boseman died of cancer in August at the age of 43, not long after he finished shooting the movie "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Now streaming on Netflix, the movie stars Viola Davis as the famous blues singer Ma Rainey and was adapted from August Wilson's play. Our film critic Justin Chang says that Boseman's final screen performance ranks among his very best.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: One reason Chadwick Boseman was such an extraordinary actor was his ability to command the screen without hogging the spotlight. His presence was so quietly magnetic that even when he played real-life heroes like Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall or fictional ones like King T'Challa in "Black Panther," he still seemed like the most self-effacing of movie stars. But Boseman could also go big, like when he took on James Brown in the musical biopic "Get On Up" and gave his most electrifying performance until now.

It's devastating that "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is the last new Boseman movie we'll ever see. This excellent adaptation of August Wilson's 1982 play from the director George C. Wolfe and the screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson is both a precious parting gift and a punch in the gut. Even more than in "Get On Up," Boseman holds nothing back. He empties himself out on screen. He plays Levee, a gifted and ambitious trumpet player struggling to forge his way in a white man's world, or in this case, a white man's recording studio, where most of the movie takes place.

It's a sweltering hot day in 1927 Chicago, and the pioneering Southern blues singer Ma Rainey, played by a superb Viola Davis, is planning to record some of her most popular songs. Ma's name may be in the play's title, but she isn't the main narrative focus here. Much of the story unfolds while the four musicians in her band are waiting for her to show up at the studio. During their rehearsal session, Cutler, the guitar and trombone player played by Colman Domingo, wants to stick with their usual arrangement for a particular song. But Levee wants to use a new, edgier version that he composed. It doesn't take long for the arguments to start and the egos to emerge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM")

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As Levee) What is you? I don't see your name in lights.

COLMAN DOMINGO: (As Cutler) Oh, I just play the piece, whatever they want. I don't criticize other people's music.

BOSEMAN: (As Levee) I ain't like you, Cut (ph). I got talent.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Oh.

BOSEMAN: (As Levee) Me and this horn, we is tight. If my daddy had a note I was going to turn out like this, he would have named me Gabriel.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Oh.

BOSEMAN: (As Levee) I'm going to get me a band and make me some records. I gave Mr. Sturdyvant some of my songs I wrote, and he say he's going to let me record them when I get my band together. I just got to finish the last part of this song. I got style.

GLYNN TURMAN: (As Toledo) Oh, everybody got style. Style ain't nothing but keeping the same idea from beginning to end. Everybody got it.

BOSEMAN: (As Levee) Everybody can't play like I do.

CHANG: For all his outward swagger, Boseman later lays bare the anguish beneath Levee's self-assured grin. In a spellbinding monologue about his Southern childhood, he reveals the acts of violence that were committed against his family by a gang of white men. He's witnessed unspeakable horrors and fought hard for his shot at success. And he's not about to let anyone stand in his way, not even Ma Rainey herself, when she finally shows up at the studio.

Viola Davis, who won an Oscar for her work in another Wilson adaptation, "Fences," is magnificent here in the kind of full-throated diva showcase she's rarely taken on. Becoming Ma Rainey required quite the transformation. Davis wears a padded rubber suit and sports a mouthful of gold teeth, and her vocals are supplied by the singer Maxayn Lewis. But the performance never feels needlessly flashy, and Davis's best moments are the ones in which she shows us Ma Rainey's anxious, calculating side.

When she stops the recording session because no one's brought her the bottle of Coke she always insists on before singing, she isn't just causing a fuss. She knows exactly what she's worth and how much power she commands in a predominantly white male industry. And she's determined to push herself right up to that line without crossing it.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is one of 10 plays in August Wilson's epic Pittsburgh Cycle and the only one that isn't actually set in Pittsburgh. Wilson's insights into the complexities of 20th century African American experience cemented his reputation as one of this country's greatest dramatists. Notably, the filmmakers haven't opened up the material in the manner of so many stage-to-screen adaptations. If anything, they've ruthlessly tightened the play and pared it down to essentials. Wolfe directs at a furious clip. The sets are spare, even drab, which has the effect of focusing your concentration on the performances. And while Bozeman and Davis are the stars of the show, every actor gets a chance to shine, including Michael Potts as the bass player Slow Drag and Glynn Turman, reprising his role as the pianist Toledo from a 2016 revival.

At the heart of the play is the bond between Levee, a fictional creation, and Ma Rainey, a real-life figure. The two are antagonistic by nature. Levee keeps trying to put his own stamp on Ma's music, and he makes the mistake of trying to seduce her young girlfriend, played by Taylour Paige. But Levee and Ma are also kindred spirits. They're both trying to make authentic, commercially viable art within a system bent on exploiting their talents. But Levee doesn't have Ma Rainey's experience or her knack for self-preservation, and the weight of his past trauma ultimately proves too much to overcome. The climax is haunting beyond words. We're seeing a man peering into an abyss played by an actor who knew his own life was slipping away. Chadwick Boseman's last moments on the screen are among his darkest and also his finest.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, is now streaming on Netflix. On Monday's show, Michael J. Fox talks about his new memoir, "No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality." It's about his recent life and how it's been affected by Parkinson's disease, which he was diagnosed with in 1991 at the age of 29. At the time, he was famous for the hit sitcom "Family Ties" and the international movie blockbuster "Back To The Future." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Charlie Kaier. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Hertzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.