Was Chadwick Boseman's character Levee from 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' based on a real person?

The last feature role of Chadwick Boseman has been touted Oscar-worthy but was his Levee, who dared challenge the Mother of Blues, based on a real person or just fiction?


                            Was Chadwick Boseman's character Levee from 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' based on a real person?
(Netflix)

In what has been dubbed as Chadwick Boseman's Oscar-winning role already before the Netflix movie hit the streaming platform, Levee from 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' is a thing of beauty to witness. The character is a trumpet player in the titular Mother of Blues' band that we encounter in the film by George C. Wolfe based on Ruben Santiago-Hudson's screenplay adapted from August Wilson's play. Right from the start, Levee is vivacious and ambitious - playing on the 'cloured man wants to have a good time' stereotype, constantly challenging his older bandmates with his quirks. The character's eventual aftermath is heartbreaking, but a question we find ourselves plagued with is whether there was really someone in real life who dared challenge the Mother of Blues?

The obvious answer to anybody aware of the plot of 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' is of course the negative. Levee, even though probably inspired by the many people who toured with Ma and were active members of her band, is a fictional character painted by Wilson, who in the play tries to challenge the icon's titular song. Boseman's Levee is a man of vigor and insatiable ambition to make it to the top – probably even triumph over Ma's success even though he is but a small part o her route. So in the fictional recording session where all hell breaks loose in the film's plot, Levee constantly tries to pit his other bandmates against Ma's direction and staunch wishes to sing the song her way. He even has the manager and recording studio owner convinced that going his own way with the song is the right a to be, thus highlighting the clash between himself and Ma.

This conflict is almost made prominent by Levee obviously flirting with Ma's girlfriend Dusie (Taylour Paige) in the opening moments of the movie. The same opening scene also sees Levee rush to the front of the center stage with his trumpet and literally toot his horn for a brief few moments as the spotlight meanders between him and Ma, making the singer visibly flustered with his discrepancy dared by one of her band members. How dare he try to overshadow her stage presence? How dare anybody eve fathom such an unpardonable offense? Such is the spirit of Levee, which sadly is very much the fictional work of playwright Wilson. 

Ma's band members in real life were however each acclaimed, commendable, and skilled musicians of grand expertise. Until 1926, Ma performed with her Wild Jazz Cats on the Theater Owner's Booking Association circuit (TOBA). That same year, her long term collaborator, pianist, and arranger Thomas A. Dorsey, who had recruited members for hr band since 1924, quit. Following Dorsey's exit, Ma went on to record with several musicians on the Paramount label under the name of 'Ma Rainey and her Georgia Jazz Band' which often collaborated with famous names like pianist Fletcher Henderson, Claude Hopkins, and Willie the Lion Smith; reed players Don Redman, Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins; and trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Tommy Ladnier. 

Levee, as a trumpet player, could have been inspired by the spitfire personas of both Armstrong and Ladnier, but neither of them clashed with Ma during her time. If anything, both have gone on to say extremely heartfelt, respectful words of tribute publicly, holding the Mother of Blues in high esteem. 

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' will premiere this Friday, December 18, only on Netflix.

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