‘Ma Rainey’ cast on Chadwick Boseman’s final film: ‘Not for one second did he hold back’
When Chadwick Boseman arrived in Pittsburgh in 2019 to film the August Wilson adaptation “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” his castmates didn’t know that he’d been privately battling cancer for three years. But costar Colman Domingo remembers what Boseman said as the “Black Panther” star prepared to pour his all into the incendiary role that would mark his final screen performance: “He said, ‘I can’t wait to dance with you, Colman.’”
Boseman, who died in August at the age of 43, commits a fiery and enthralling turn to the 1920s-set “Ma Rainey” as Levee, the talented and ambitious cornet player in a band hired to back blues legend Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (Viola Davis) as she records her latest album.
As the afternoon session unfolds in the film, now available on Netflix, music soars, tempers flare and tensions rise between band members, while Ma battles a white manager and producer trying to squeeze another hit record out of her. Directed by George C. Wolfe from a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the film is dedicated to Boseman “in celebration of his artistry and heart” and could nab him a posthumous Oscar nomination for best actor.
Boseman also could earn a supporting actor nod for his charismatic turn this year as “Stormin’” Norm Holloway, the leader of a squad of Black American soldiers, in Spike Lee’s Vietnam War drama “Da 5 Bloods.”
But about that dance. “We all danced with each other because that’s what you do as jazz musicians, as blues musicians,” said Domingo, who plays Cutler, the bandleader whose barbed repartee with Boseman’s Levee builds to an explosive crescendo. “You take part of your spirit and your soul and you let that spawn the work. I think that we knew that as a musical adaptation, the musical part of the filming was like playing it — like jazz, like the blues.”
Adapted from Wilson’s landmark “Century Cycle” of 10 plays spanning African American life throughout the 20th century, “Ma Rainey” was filmed in the playwright’s hometown of Pittsburgh (standing in for Chicago), where the cast assembled ahead of filming for extensive rehearsals. There, Boseman, Davis, Domingo and actors Michael Potts and Glynn Turman — who round out the core ensemble as bassist Slow Drag and piano man Toledo, respectively — forged a bond over intimate dinners.
Thanks to his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Boseman was a highly recognizable global icon. But one night as the actors met at a restaurant they’d stay at until closing, Potts remembers in the making-of book “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: The Journey From Stage to Screen” (Freedman, 2020), the humility he carried with him impressed his castmates; to their surprise, he’d walked there from the hotel on his own.
“He was present in every conversation yet never steered it toward himself, never talked about his projects,” said Potts. “He instead spent most of the time admiring Glynn and talking about ‘Cooley High.’”
Boseman, Davis told The Times, was consummately focused on his craft. “He’s a big star, he just did a movie that made a billion dollars, but he had the same mindset as me,” she said. “Once your last job is over there are three famous words that become a huge part of your life: ‘And now what?’ Now you’re onto the next projects. Every time he came on set it was fiercely, absolutely about the work. He was an artist, Chadwick was. He was an absolute joy.”
The two had starred as mother and son in the 2016 biopic “Get On Up,” in which Boseman played soul legend James Brown. Reuniting in “Ma Rainey” to square off as the fearless “Mother of the Blues” and her impetuous trumpet player, Davis saw Boseman step into a role she described as a “fitting denouement.”
“I think that Levee is probably one of the greatest if not the greatest role for an African American man, ever, onstage, onscreen,” she said. “For me it spotlights his legacy beautifully, because his legacy was about excellence. But what you’re going to see is Chadwick as an artist. So it’s very fitting. A very fitting denouement.”
To Wolfe, it’s a bittersweet honor to release “Ma Rainey” as one of the final pieces of Boseman’s film legacy. “There is a profound sadness, but also with the sadness I feel personally very blessed by his work in the film, which is astonishing, and by his generosity,” said Wolfe.
Producer Denzel Washington had his own special offscreen history with Boseman before “Ma Rainey” went before the cameras: Years ago, when Boseman was a theater student, Washington had paid his tuition to study at the British Academy of Dramatic Acting in Oxford.
Watching Boseman on set in “a bold part and a bold performance,” Washington saw “magic” unfold. “It was hard sometimes because I wanted to get involved and I couldn’t,” he said. “I was like, OK, I’m not acting in it, I’m not directing it, just stay over here in my little corner in my producing tent, I had my screen to watch and sometimes that was the hardest part. But these were Champagne problems. There was magic going on.”
What audiences will see onscreen in Boseman’s performance, Wolfe said, is the product of hard work made to look effortless in the actor’s stunning turn as the tragic, tempestuous Levee.
“A lot of his major scenes got pushed to the last week so he was doing, every day, monstrosity scenes,” said Wolfe. “Emotionally and physically draining scenes. And for every take, every day, it was just glorious work. Not for one second did he hold back, and not for one second did he falter. It was full heart, full craft, full being for every single moment that we were filming.”
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