Viola Davis and Ma Rainey's director George C. Wolfe on the tragedy of Chadwick Boseman's Levee
Describing the central conflict in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, between her titular diva and Chadwick Boseman’s ambitious trumpeter, star Viola Davis tells EW that “Levee represents everything that is antithetical towards [Ma’s] belief system. He is representative of a new phase of music that will render her extinct, for lack of a better term. He is unruly and undisciplined. I think that makes her uneasy. She sees him sexually as a threat too, to women that she has in her life.”
Throughout the Netflix film (now streaming), an adaptation of the August Wilson play, Levee plots against his boss Ma Rainey (Davis), trying to get their white record producer to force his new arrangement of her song upon her, and making moves on her paramour Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Little does he know though that the Mother of the Blues always gets her way in the end.
“Ma is the only one who's known,” explains Davis. “This is a famous woman, who basically goes down in history — I mean, you can google Ma Rainey. You can't google any of those band members and I think that that is a huge, silent, big, white elephant in the room.”
Helping deepen the audience’s understanding of Ma Rainey and Levee’s connection, director George C. Wolfe adds “one of the tragedies [of the film] is that these two people have very different tactics, but they're very similar. He is smart the way she is smart. He is talented the way she is talented but he's reckless and she's rigid.”
For as much as Levee brags about knowing how to deal with white people trying to exert their power over him, Ma Rainey is the only one they ultimately listen to and respect. Had the overzealous band member embraced the opportunity to have Ma Rainey as a mentor, instead of circumventing her in every way he could, she could’ve helped him avoid the devastation he meets at the end of the movie. “That's what it basically makes me very sad about their connection because they could've provided pieces of information that the other was missing,” says Wolfe.
The specific tragedy of Levee becomes accessible through the critically-acclaimed performance from the late Chadwick Boseman. “You are watching a brilliant artist go to incredibly complicated places and going there freely — I'm sure with a tremendous amount of craft and effort—but gloriously going there, and reveling inside the pain of the awkwardness of what Levee is going through,” explains Wolfe.
In remembrance of her late costar, Davis gave an explanation of just what made Boseman special, not just in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but in every piece of work he graced with his presence:
"The mark of an artist is transcendence. When you can see those performances where someone really channels all that makes us messy and putrid and traumatized and beautiful as human beings, and they bravely are able to channel that," Davis shares. "There are very few artists out there. There’s a lot of entertainers masquerading as artists; there are [only] a few artists who are absolute artists. And Chadwick was one of them. That needs to be acknowledged because I don’t think that acting is rocket science. But I do believe that it’s an art form, and I do believe that it does have the ability to shift and change people and our hearts. There’s a value to that. So this is a huge loss to people in general, but especially to our community."