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'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' showcases Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis

November 20, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

Chadwick Boseman's tragic death will draw understandable attention to "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which represents his final role. Yet that focus shouldn't overshadow the riveting performances that elevate this small-scale Netflix movie, adapted from the August Wilson play with its somewhat claustrophobic stage origins very much intact.

(CNN)Chadwick Boseman's tragic death will draw understandable attention to "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which represents his final role.

Yet that focus shouldn't overshadow the riveting performances that elevate this small-scale Netflix movie, adapted from the August Wilson play with its somewhat claustrophobic stage origins very much intact.

Although constructed as an ensemble piece, Viola Davis' turn as the title character -- the "Mother of the Blues" of the 1920s -- and Boseman's as her ambitious trumpet player stand out, reflecting how the era's racial inequality translated into thinly concealed rage.

Ma and her band have made the pilgrimage from Georgia to make a record, but tensions within the group, as well as between Ma and her manager (Jeremy Shamos), bubble beneath the surface, and occasionally boil over.

Boseman's Levee has big dreams, which include bringing his own creative spin to Ma's songs, which simply won't fly with her.

"You play Ma's music when you're here," he's told by Cutler ("Fear the Walking Dead's" Colman Domingo), a band veteran along with characters played by Glynn Turman and Michael Potts.

Levee, moreover, is braving Ma's wrath in more ways than one, having set his eyes on her girlfriend ("Hit the Floor's" Taylour Paige).

Fortunately, Davis and Boseman deliver powerful performances, lashing out at those around them -- especially, in Levee's case, because of constraints in terms of where and how he can direct his anger.

While "Black Panther" remains an enormous part of Boseman's legacy, his flashy, fast-talking role here -- using music as a means of seduction -- demonstrates his extraordinary range and at least while watching nearly erases considerations beyond what's on screen, which is no small feat.

Davis, for her part, sinks her teeth into another larger-than-life character as only she can, with the one complicating factor being that her relatively limited screen time makes the meaty role hard to categorize from an awards perspective.

Amid its concerted awards push, Netflix has been particularly aggressive about bringing theatrical works to living rooms, including "The Boys in the Band," "American Son" and the upcoming "The Prom. " In terms of timing, approximating the intimacy of theater -- as difficult as that is via TV -- is extremely well timed with stages closed due to the pandemic.

At just over 90 minutes, "Ma Rainey" -- like any savvy performer -- doesn't overstay its welcome, or risk stretching the premise beyond its weight.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" will receive a limited theatrical release on Nov. 25 and premieres Dec. 18 on Netflix.

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