The loss of Chadwick Boseman is unfathomably difficult to reckon with. Known for his iconic screen performances in works like Black Panther and Da 5 Bloods, alongside his off-screen reputation as a man of immense character, Boseman’s death came as a surprise to most, a sudden snuffing of light. But we have one more on-screen role of his to celebrate: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, featuring Boseman’s final film role, comes to Netflix this December, and we’ve got the first images here.
Based on an August Wilson play and produced by Denzel Washington, who also directed and starred in Wilson’s Fences, the film features Viola Davis (Oscar winner for Fences) as Ma Rainey, a fierce and influential blues musician who’s ready to rock the white-dominated world of popular music, and Boseman as Levee, a tempestuous jazz trumpeter ready to rock the boat in order to feed his ambition. The film is directed by George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) and adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, himself a playwright and actor.
Davis went on to note that, while Boseman’s cancer diagnosis was kept a secret from the public, it did contextualize some of how he behaved on set: “I’m looking back at how tired he always seemed. I look at his beautiful, unbelievable team that was meditating over him and massaging him, and I now realize everything they were trying to infuse in him to keep him going and working at his optimal level. And he received it.” Ultimately, both performers inhabited their roles whole-heartedly; Davis said playing Rainey was “fan-friggin-fantastic… I reveled in her, I swished my hips every day. There was such joy in that freedom of expression… I have to remember that I don’t have to barter for my worth. I was just born with it.”
What is the final legacy of Boseman, this performance, and the fact that this performance is his last? Davis summed it up thusly:
“I think a lot of times, people look at someone’s life backwards. Now we have the unfortunate knowledge that Chadwick succumbed to cancer at 43, but really, Levee represents so many Black men living in America. What we’re constantly navigating on a day-to-day basis is the trauma of our past — we’re trying to heal from it, we’re even trying to understand that it’s there, and we’re negotiating that with our dreams and who we want to become… Now we know that the role mirrors Chadwick’s life, but if that were omitted, it still mirrors his life in a way. Because it mirrors the life of every Black person grieving, and especially the life of a Black man.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes to Netflix December 18. Check out the first images below.
Here’s the official synopsis:
Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians await trailblazing performer, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Academy Award® winner Viola Davis). Late to the session, the fearless, fiery Ma engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music. As the band waits in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) — who has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend and is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry — spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives.
Adapted from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM celebrates the transformative power of the blues and the artists who refuse to let society’s prejudices dictate their worth. Directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the film is produced by Fences Oscar® nominees Denzel Washington and Todd Black. Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige and Dusan Brown co-star alongside Grammy® winner Branford Marsalis’ score.