Movie Reviews

Chadwick Boseman's last film exposes hard truths that have long plagued black achievers

Historic characters bring truth to light in two important new movies: 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' and 'One Night in Miami'

24 January 2021 - 00:03 By tymon smith
The late Chadwick Boseman gives a career-best performance as troubled trumpeter Levee in 'Ma Rainey ’s Black Bottom'.
The late Chadwick Boseman gives a career-best performance as troubled trumpeter Levee in 'Ma Rainey ’s Black Bottom'.
Image: David Lee/Netflix

Two recent film adaptations of stage plays reveal uncomfortable truths about the reality of the black experience in America today through imaginative and vibrantly acted reimaginations of larger-than-life characters from its past.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, directed by Tony award-winning theatre director George C Wolfe and adapted from the 1982 play by seminal playwright August Wilson, tells the story, not so much of its titular character, but of a group of men in the band that supports the legendary mother of the blues during a sweltering summer's day at a recording studio in 1920s Chicago.

Oscar-winning actress Regina King's feature debut, One Night in Miami, adapted from the award-winning 2013 play by Kemp Powers, offers a thematically similar examination of the paradoxes and challenges of black excellence in a white-controlled world through the fictional imagining of a real meeting between four shining lights of black America in Miami in 1964.

Both films offer an invigorating and provocative examination of hard-hitting truths that have plagued black achievers in a world in which white power and pervasive attitudes restrict the choices available to black Americans in spite of their success — both then and now.

They also manage, through fidelity to the probing nature of their source material, to show that sometimes it's OK to ask audiences to listen to as much as look at what's happening on screen.

WATCH | The trailer for 'Ma Rainey ’s Black Bottom'

Forming part of Wilson's groundbreaking 10-part Pittsburgh cycle of plays, which includes Fences (adapted for screen in 2016, earning a best supporting actress Oscar for Viola Davis), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom mostly sticks to the stage rules of setting its action in one location and focusing on a small group of characters whose different attitudes form the basis for its emotional and political stakes.

Rainey herself is played with determination and guts by Davis as a woman who thinks she's worked out how to play the game by her rules, but will soon have the basis of the game she's playing challenged by a young upstart — an ambitious and troubled trumpeter named Levee (Chadwick Boseman). He has a different idea of what the game could be if only he was given the chance to reimagine it.

As Levee and Ma Rainey clash over the course of a humid Chicago afternoon in the sweaty confines of the studio, things draw towards a final, dramatic confrontation.

The central question of whether success within the confines of a white-controlled world in which white record company owners pull the strings and exploit their black stars is one that's played out in front of the band by the clash of the two sides of the argument represented by Rainey and Levee.

In his final role before his death last year, Boseman gives a career-best performance full of complex layers of personal tragedy, hopeful self-confidence and trickster charm that's all the more poignant for its evidence of what he could have gone on to do had his life not been cut short. Davis, for her part, dominates the screen every time she appears and offers a memorable interpretation of Rainey as a woman who knows her worth.

Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'.
Viola Davis as Ma Rainey in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'.
Image: Netflix

King's adaptation of Powers' play also remains faithful to its source material's single setting, while celebrating the achievements of the legendary figures at its centre.

One Night in Miami imagines the interactions between its four characters — boxer Cassius Clay, hours after his historic victory over Sonny Liston, shortly before his entry into the Nation of Islam and rechristening as Muhammad Ali; firebrand activist Malcolm X, in the midst of a bitter, public feud with the Nation; beloved NFL superstar about to turn film star Jim Brown; and soon to be tragically shot singer, songwriter and producer Sam Cooke.

It's a meeting that did happen, but there's no record of its details and so Powers has written his own version of events, in which the burning questions of how to navigate white expectations and corporate power continue to plague black stars four decades later.

WATCH | The trailer for 'One Night in Miami'

King manages to open up the material visually more successfully than Wolfe, but she's loyal to the words and ideas of Powers' play and is assisted by strong performances from Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Cassius Clay), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown) and Leslie Odom Jr (Sam Cooke).

While Clay is the biggest star in the room, much of the action focuses on an argument between Malcolm X and Cooke, who, though he's carved a unique path for himself within the music world where he seems to have the system figured out, continues, in Malcolm X's view, to pander to white audiences by delivering songs that refuse to address the civil rights struggles exploding across the country.

It's a piece of poetic licence that's cleverly used by Powers to allow the meeting to create the circumstances for the writing of Cook's trailblazing anthem A Change Is Gonna Come, even though in reality by the time of this momentous meeting Cooke had already written it.

Like the fight between Ma Rainey and Levee, the one between Cooke and Malcolm X has the same urgent question at its centre: is it enough to master the rules of a game — still under the control of white expectations — for personal success, or is the more vital struggle to change the game completely and take it out of white hands to create black art that speaks directly and unapologetically to the black American experience? Look no further than these two searing, energetic and refreshingly unafraid films to find the answer.

• 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' is on Netflix. 'One Night in Miami' is on Amazon Prime Video.