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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom review – a firecracker swansong for Chadwick Boseman

This Netflix adaptation casts Viola Davis as a bonafide jazz legend, but the spotlight shines brightest on the late Black Panther star

The final Chadwick Boseman performance was always going to provide a deeply moving experience. The actor, who tragically passed away in the summer at the age of 43, stars opposite Viola Davis in George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. We end the year by looking in his eyes, and it is the greatest gift.

Boseman plays Ma’s ambitious trumpeter Levee, a young man with his eye on bigger things than simply underscoring someone else’s rising star. The year is 1927 and the film mostly stays in the Chicago rehearsal room, watching Levee along with his other band members (Colman Domingo’s Cutler in particular is a highlight) chew over their thoughts and plans for the world, while Davis as Ma – with world-weary eyes and makeup underscoring the weight of it all – gets ready to record again.

There is often a sense that this story could (and did) work better on the stage, as characters move little, dialogue is choreographed as a clean back and forth, and you’re there to marvel at the body language and chemistry telegraphing an entire world of feeling without too much geographical displacement. It also means that by the time the credits roll it somewhat feels like the film was just getting started – stories of musical icons tend to map their careers on the road, on the stage, whereas Ma and her band spend most of their time in the rehearsal room.

Still, the strength and fire in the film are undeniable – and that’s all Boseman. His Levee is incandescent: hungry for more power and attention, and disgusted by the status quo of a still segregated world. There’s a childlike vigour to the actor here, as his eyes sparkle and you see him bouncing off the walls as if he’d never been in a movie like this before.

He had been in movies like this, even bigger than this, and so you might expect something less generous from such a star. Yet from everything we’ve heard about those who have worked with Boseman, this energy was simply who he was in every circumstance. Every room felt brighter and more alive with him in it. And so it makes sense that a film that’s going nowhere fast shines so much brighter when he’s around. There is vulnerability and fear and anger, too, particularly in a violent shock of a finale – and here is an actor who can juggle it all to perfection.

Wilson’s script has real bite to it, while Wolfe honours the legacy of the real-life jazz singer with glamour and verve. Davis is, as ever, a powerhouse, and it feels like her Ma would have plenty more stories to tell. But this film belongs to Boseman. To his character’s broken soul, his hurricane ambition, his hope. And to this actor’s incomparable brilliance. He’s magic – we’ll never stop missing him.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is now showing in cinemas.

Where to watch

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