Viola Davis talks ‘healing’ music Chadwick Boseman played making 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'

Anika Reed

Chadwick Boseman breathed life into all of his roles.

Even after his untimely death in August from colon cancer at age 43, Boseman gives his all to his final film role in Netflix's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (streaming Friday).

Director George C. Wolfe's adaptation of August Wilson's 1982 play stars Boseman as Levee, a fiery cornet player in a band headlined by the titular Ma Rainey (Viola Davis). The film takes place on a steamy Chicago day at a recording studio in 1927, with tensions flaring between Ma, Levee, the band and the white recording execs.

Davis recalls Boseman's dedication to a different instrument in his day-to-day life after the cameras stopped rolling.

"One of the things that he carried everywhere was his djembe drum, which is called a talking drum in Africa. And he carried it himself," Davis tells USA TODAY. "He said ‘Viola, wherever I go, I carry my djembe drum. … I do it for me. I play this drum for me, for my healing. 

"It felt like he was playing that for God, for himself. There's no words to describe the playing, because I love the djembe drum, but listening to him play when he had breaks in that trailer was just phenomenal."

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Chadwick Boseman, center, stars as Levee in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Michael Potts, left, plays Slow Drag and Colman Domingo, right, is Cutler.

Boseman's co-star Colman Domingo, who plays trombonist Cutler, says one take was never enough for Boseman.

"He always asked to do one more," Domingo says. "I'm always fine with a couple takes. … Chad would never settle for that. He was deeply, deeply married to doing the work."

Davis, who previously starred with Boseman, as his mother in 2014's "Get On Up," notes that the cast "really didn't see" him being sick on set. 

"He was thin, he was tired a lot, but there's a lot of people who are thin and tired a lot in our profession. You know, it's brutal," Davis says. "But there was nothing about the way he acted on set that made us believe that this was the end."

Domingo thinks working on the film "was a place of joy" for Boseman. "I think he had a great time doing this work and being with his fellows. So he gave it his all," Domingo says, though he looks back and "can't even imagine how he got through … some of the worst times dealing with his body and his health."

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"Ma Rainey" was a 30-days shoot that saw Wolfe directing Boseman through Levee's intense monologues. 

"He told me that he was very proud of the film and very proud of his work," Wolfe says. "It was a glorious blessing to be a part of his journey, and for him to open up his guts and and use his power and his truth and his craft and his charisma to make Levee come to life."

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Domingo compares Boseman to the iconic roles Boseman played in films like "42" and "Black Panther," noting that the star wouldn't have wanted to be "looked at as being ill."

"Chad was very much like the roles he played. He was like Jackie Robinson and James Brown and Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa. I understand why he played so many legends, monumental figures," Domingo says. "Because he was cut from the same cloth. So of course he wasn't going to go down in any ounce of weakness, because that's not what I saw, ever. I saw a really profound, strong, loving, spirited, kind human being. And I think that's the way he wanted to be remembered."

Boseman, Davis says, didn't dwell on the past.

"He was not interested in what he did in his last project, he was interested in the project he had in front of him, and he was a team player," Davis says. "And, on top of all of that, he was a great man."

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