‘Ma Rainey’s’ First Look: Viola Davis, Denzel Washington Praise Chadwick Boseman’s Final Role

George C. Wolfe’s upcoming adaptation of August Wilson’s stage play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was always going to be one of Netflix’s big Oscar contenders for the 2020-21 awards season, but the passing of Chadwick Boseman has elevated the project further, as it’s now the late actor’s final movie. Boseman passed away in late August after a battle with colon cancer. A first look at the drama, which also boasts Viola Davis in the titlular role and her “Fences” director and co-star Denzel Washington as a producer, has debuted via The New York Times. Todd Black is also a producer on the project.

“Ma Rainey’s Block Bottom” stars Davis as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the iconic professional blues singer who became known as the “Mother of the Blues.” The film is set during an intense recording session in 1920s Chicago as Ma Rainey battles her manager and producer over control of her music and goes toe-to-toe with band members such as Boseman’s Levee, an ambitious trumpeter who is determined to make a name for himself in the music industry. The supporting cast includes Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts.

Washington, who last brought Wilson to the screen with “Fences,” told The Times of Boseman’s performance, “He did a brilliant job, and he’s gone. I still can’t believe it.”

Popular on Indiewire

“A lot of actors mistake their presence for the event,” Davis added about her late co-star. “An actor of Chadwick’s status usually comes on and it’s their ego who comes on before them: This is what they want, this is what they’re not going to do. That was absolutely, 150 percent off the table with Chadwick. He could completely discard whatever ego he had, whatever vanity he had, and welcome Levee in.”

Boseman was battling cancer while in production on “Ma Rainey’s,” but no one involved with the film knew at the time. Davis said, “I’m looking back at how tired he always seemed. I look at his beautiful, unbelievable team that was meditating over him and massaging him, and I now realize everything they were trying to infuse in him to keep him going and working at his optimal level. And he received it.”

“I think a lot of times, people look at someone’s life backwards,” Davis added. “Now we have the unfortunate knowledge that Chadwick succumbed to cancer at 43, but really, Levee represents so many Black men living in America. What we’re constantly navigating on a day-to-day basis is the trauma of our past — we’re trying to heal from it, we’re even trying to understand that it’s there, and we’re negotiating that with our dreams and who we want to become.”

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is set to debut December 18 on Netflix. Head over to The New York Times’ website for more first look photos.