This film is made emotionally intense by the actors' soulful performances and the hard truths at the core of the story. Even if you didn't know Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was based on an August Wilson play, you could guess at its theatrical roots in its character focus, dialogue-heavy scenes, and stage-like settings (the few outdoor scenes, particularly Chicago's city streets, seem to look purposefully like sets). The closed spaces, so muggy-hot that the characters are sweating, feel symbolically restrictive, a manifestation of the oppression the Black characters have experienced all their lives. Their rage and weariness materialize especially in Ma Rainey and Levee. In one scene, Levee breaks down a door only to find himself at the bottom of an enclosed brick patio, with no way out.
Davis brings a simmering resentment to her Ma Rainey. One smoldering look through her smeared, maudlin makeup sends the men around her scampering. It comes as a bit of a shock to see photos over the end credits of a smiling, clean-faced real-life Ma Rainey. Meanwhile, Boseman's final film before his untimely death from cancer shows the full range of his acting talent. His Levee is at turns charming, sorrowful, boastful, angry, and violent. The solid character actors playing the musicians around him all have their own starring moments, but they seem mostly there to react to Boseman. Levee is a talented, flawed, and traumatized young man who deeply deserves a better past and future than the ones he's got, and Boseman's gifted performance, exuding a mix of youthful energy, vulnerability, and fury, brings this to tragic life.