When Levee Breaks – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

It’s a rare thing when an actor gives a performance that truly feels otherworldly, as if they’re so lost in a role that nothing could extricate them from the moment. It can reach deep within your own being as a viewer, even if you have no real-life connection to the character. It’s transformative in a way that alters your very perception, not just linking a performer to a role, but seeing them become interchangeable, as if the two are now one and the same. It can define an actor’s entire career, and sometimes not always for the best. Even when it’s a good thing, it’s often underappreciated. The last two times I remember seeing it happen, inexplicably the Academy still gave Best Actor Oscars to Sean Penn.

The late Chadwick Boseman has now accomplished the unthinkable, and done it twice. He will always be Black Panther in the hearts of fans everywhere, especially children, and his untimely death was one of the biggest heartbreaks in a year chock full of them. But even with that, having already cemented his legacy for all time, he gave us the swan song to end all swan songs, the tragically passionate Levee Green in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. His last work turns out to be his greatest, and with a tremendous cast and production behind him, helps craft one of the truly great films of 2020.

I’ve been a fan of August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” since I first saw my college put on a production of Jitney nearly 20 years ago. For those unfamiliar with the work, the prolific American playwright composed a magnum opus, 10 plays highlighting the black experience in this county, each set in a different decade of the 20th century (Jitney is set in the 1970s), and with one exception – Ma Rainey itself – set in Pittsburgh (this one is set in Chicago, which is why the group is alternately called “The Century Cycle”), one of the quintessential working class cities in the eyes of Americana. The plays are cleverly-written masterworks, instantly relatable and exploring the aspects of systemic racism that are the easiest to ignore, featuring lived-in characters that speak truth to the messier aspects of day-to-day life. I’ve seen about half the plays, either on stage or on screen, and I’ve loved each and every one of them.

Denzel Washington has been key in this process, adapting Fences (set in the 50s) for the big screen a few years ago. That passion project was part of an original deal with HBO to adapt the entire cycle, but I’m not sure it’ll ever come to fruition despite being moved to Netflix. That first effort earned four Oscar nominations and a long overdue win for Viola Davis. It was a promising start, and generated a ton of excitement for Ma Rainey, which is arguably the most famous of the cycle. Ruben Santiago-Hudson wrote the adapted screenplay while Tony-winning director George C. Wolfe got the reins behind the camera. Like Fences, the intent was to make this play as much of a stage play on screen as possible, and it’s directed as such, but their expert touches and the fantastic production design team give the film a unique hybrid feel. You know intellectually you’re watching a play, right down to the blocking of the characters (no one has their back to the camera unless it’s for a very specific reason, for example), but the disparate environments within the Chicago recording studio creates a layered approach (figuratively and literally based on the design) that gives it a much more cinematic quality.

This film, set in the 1920s, has one of the more unique character dynamics I’ve seen in a while. Neither Boseman’s Levee Green – an ambitious, lustful, and hotheaded trumpeter – nor Viola Davis as Ma Rainey herself – a fictionalized version of the real-life jazz legend – is what you would traditionally think of as a protagonist or an antagonist. Instead, the two leads serve a dual, blended role. They antagonize one another in the rare instances they’re in the same room together, but separately drive the plot as the heroes of their own story on different sets. And while the two form the central conflict – whose arrangement of the title song will be recorded – neither is entirely wrong in their position, nor are they acting honorably.

Ma encourages her stuttering nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) and attempts to mentor her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who has drawn Levee’s attention, while standing up for herself and her music to her manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and the exploitative studio owner, Mel (Jonny Coyne). For the bulk of the action, Ma occupies the recording space and rules over it, determined to assert her will and protect her art, knowing that as long as she’s profitable, she has power. This bleeds into diva territory throughout the film, but it’s always carried by Davis as an earned perk for her success, not an entitlement based on socioeconomic status. Meanwhile, down below, in the sweaty basement “band room,” Levee both frustrates and inspires his older bandmates. Trombone player Cutler (Colman Domingo) is the ostensible leader, mediating all disputes within the group, while pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts), try to impart wisdom on Levee through their lived experience. While the four trade barbs and an awful lot of shit-talk, Levee does demonstrate world-weary knowledge well beyond his years, including his own way of dealing with Mel to achieve his ends. And no matter how hot his passions get, both professionally and sexually, deep down he’s a good-hearted, ambitious artist in his own right, beginning the main story overjoyed at being able to afford a shiny new pair of shoes. This kind of simple joy and symbol of incremental advancement is recurring theme throughout Wilson’s cycle.

The story unfolds like a Shakespearean tragedy, with the climax being the successful performance of the main song. This scene alone is a moment of pure joy, the culmination of all the consternation that came before it, a testament to the wonderful things committed people can accomplish even when they’re ostensibly opponents and rivals. It also signals of the falling action and catastrophe to come in true bard fashion. The entire cast united in two minutes of musical perfection by itself makes for one of the best scenes of the year, and along with the few bits that precede and follow it, display the talents of the entire ensemble in ways few things can. Honestly, you’d have an Oscar-worthy short film based on this sequence alone.

But what really sells the whole affair are the two leads. Viola Davis is a master of her craft and has been for years. As Ma Rainey she commands the attention of everyone around her, a woman who knows her worth, and who will wield the power that grants her for as long as possible. Well advanced in age and experience, she’s the perfect blend of too old to change and too tired to care. She found her way out of poverty, used her talents to escape the hellish Deep South, and is now doing her best to help others get a little taste of the sweet life. But she’s also been through so much shit that she can see through anyone, and will abide no one who makes her life difficult, hence her disdain for Mel and Levee.

On the other side, Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Levee should become the stuff of legend. This is a young man aching – figuratively and at times literally – for his shot at the big time, fueled by a passionate love for his art and a lifetime’s worth of trauma and oppression in just a few short years. Every time he sasses back to his bandmates, it’s not just some snippy kid who thinks he knows everything, it comes from a place of darkness searching desperately for the light, an earnestness rarely seen in fiction or reality. And of course, because Boseman’s gone, because of the way he was taken, we have to ask ourselves how much of his life-ending pain informed that performance. When he screams, how much of that is his actual agony? When he cries, how much of it is training versus straining? Boseman worked while fighting cancer for about the last four years of his life, and knowing that as we do, we’re conditioned to read between the lines and search for signs of that struggle. I don’t know if it translated into his performance, but regardless of where he found his muse, Boseman disappears so seamlessly into Levee that it feels truly magical.

A nomination is almost assured, and he may join Heath Ledger and Peter Finch as the only posthumous acting Oscar winners. That would make him a note of history, but honestly, even if he were still with us, he’d deserve the praise just as much, because throughout his short career he showed that he was capable of this moment. Many performers who die too young leave us reminders of what might have been, from James Dean to River Phoenix to Anton Yelchin. But Chadwick Boseman’s final performance is a statement of potential fully realized before the end. We need not wonder where he could have gone, because he showed us who he was throughout. Whether this was his last performance, his first, or somewhere in the middle of a long and illustrious career, he rose to the occasion and delivered a performance for the ages. It was glorious. He was glorious.

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Where do you rank this film among the 2020 contenders? What would your jazz name be? Let me know!

6 thoughts on “When Levee Breaks – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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