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A devastating loss for cinema this year was the death of the charismatic and emotionally intelligent performer and Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman.

This tragedy feels even more painful after watching him give perhaps his career-best work in his final film performance here.

Based on the play of the same name by the acclaimed playwright August Wilson, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is mostly set on a searing summer's day in 1920s Chicago and follows a band of musicians preparing for the arrival of the legendary "Mother of the Blues" herself, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis).

Among the artists waiting to work with Ma is the ambitious trumpeter Levee (Boseman) who is not as easily intimidated by the explosive star when she does arrive in the studio.

Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Colman Domingo as Cutler, Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, Michael Potts as Slow Drag and Glynn Turman as Toledo in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
(Image: David Lee/NETFLIX)

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However, the burning heat of the day is made all the fierier as Ma clashes with her white management, Levee clashes with his fellow musicians and flirts with Ma's girlfriend (Taylour Paige), and the painful pasts haunting multiple characters come to the fore with devastating consequences.

Barring a couple of more overtly cinematic sequences, director George C. Wolfe embraces the theatrical roots of Wilson's work, mostly confining events to the increasingly claustrophobic and tense recording studio rehearsal space.

The film is, of course, dominated by its two lead performances.

Davis embodies the living legend Ma Rainey
(Image: David Lee/Netflix)

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Davis aches with resentment, charisma, and passion as Ma Rainey, making a believable legend struggling in the confines of her race, gender, and class, but not letting that stop her fearless determination which reads especially well from her hard stare caked in shadowy eye make-up.

The actress remains one of the greatest living actors and this performance is once again awards-worthy, proving that Davis works especially well with August Wilson's dramatic works – having won her Academy Award for her work in Fences.

Here Davis is perfectly matched by Boseman who offers a psychologically rich turn as Levee who himself is a man confident in his art form and also brimming with desire, but with deep-seated trauma that serves to spill into a blind rage.

The late Chadwick Boseman (second, left) is powerful in his final role as trumpeter Levee
(Image: NETFLIX)

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The late actor is astoundingly good here, bringing his unique brand of majesty but also a palpable melancholy that works especially well in the script's nuanced exchanges with the other backing musicians to Ma Rainey.

Colman Domingo and Glynn Turman also offer fine supporting performances, who are grateful to be in Ma Rainey's orbit and are resistant to the potential ructions that Boseman's Levee will cause.

Sadly the same richness isn't awarded to Paige as Ma's sultry lover.

As the film progresses, Wolfe successfully rackets up the tension between the entire central cast and mines the thematic depth brought out by his performers.

Ma Rainey is joined by Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and Sylvester (Dusan Brown)
(Image: David Lee/Netflix)

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If the film falls down it is in the pacing, particularly in the middle of the outing when perhaps some more oppressive directorial style would have been welcome.

However, Wolfe's ability to rely on the power of his source material and the sheer talent of his ensemble is entirely to the film's benefit in the final act, as events reach a startling conclusion.

The social commentary crackles, even almost a century after the events are set, as Ma herself notes: "You're coloured and you can make them some money, then you're alright with them. Otherwise, you're just a dog in some alley."

The final scenes cement Chadwick Boseman as a true talent lost too soon
(Image: NETFLIX)

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Hard truths are being dealt out here in spades, and while some of the monologues don't always feel as natural as they could, the majority lands with a hard slap.

In the final scenes especially, Boseman cements his status as a Hollywood legend taken too soon.

Verdict

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a powerful drama about artistry, race, and trauma that delivers powerful work from Viola Davis and a perfect final performance from Chadwick Boseman.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is released on Netflix on December 18, 2020.

What have been your favourite performances from Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman? Let us know in the comments below.