Chadwick Boseman’s Career-Best Performance in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Will Break Your Heart
The late “Black Panther” star could win an Oscar for his final screen performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” an emotional testament to a singular talent gone far too soon.
Chadwick Boseman’s performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom begins with a blare on the trumpet, climaxes with a call to God, and ends with a plea for mercy.
Levee, his character in the new Netflix film adapted from August Wilson’s play, is an undeniable talent whose own pain and hubris block his path to greatness. This is the last on-screen performance from Boseman, who died in August at age 43 after a four-year battle with colon cancer. To roaring, though heartbreaking, effect, this final bow leaves no question that he did achieve master status.
Set in 1927, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom circles the recording of a new record by domineering blues diva Ma Rainey (a formidable, almost unrecognizable Viola Davis) and her backup band. Temperatures rise, sweating out tantrums of ego, but also history. By the end of the play, the studio’s floorboards are soaked with the tales from Ma and her boys, speeches laying bare past traumas, the fury that has burrowed for generations, and the clash between hope and hopelessness.
The first introduction to Boseman’s Levee heralds a boisterous playboy, a one-man brass band of charisma that irks yet proves irresistible to his elders in Ma’s troupe. If you’ve come to know Boseman for the stoicism and regality that’s made towering icons out of his performances as T’Challa in Black Panther, or as Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall in those respective biopics, then it’s a treat to see him channeling the fiery energy that had previously transformed him into an indelible James Brown.
He’s loose and wily, a spark that flickers its way through each scene he’s in. At some points it seems as if he’s practically elastic. You blink and he’s danced his way from one corner of the frame to the other, bouncing off the walls, singing, shuffling, teasing, and razzing his bandmates.
Levee’s lively entrance and blinding confidence is in pursuit of a new era, one that he’s so excited for and certain will come that he can’t keep his feet from floating across the floorboards. The tragedy is that, for him, that new era may not arrive. If Ma is resigned to do what she has to do to survive under the old ways, then Levee may fall victim to it.
They are Black musicians grappling with their agency, being racially exploited at a time when it felt like they could finally start asserting their creative worth. Mothers, fathers, and God himself are invoked as they debate how they got to where they are, and what they’re owed. ''The writer August Wilson sends the entire history of black America crashing down upon our heads,'' Frank Rich wrote in his 1984 New York Times review of the original Ma Rainey production.
Revisiting that rave on the occasion of the, sadly, mismanaged and critically maligned 2003 revival, Ben Brantley remembered, “Mr. Wilson’s wasn't the only debut to race pulses. As an ambitious, self-destructive trumpeter named Levee, [Charles S.] Dutton, then 37, garnered the kinds of critical hosannas that guarantee that most beloved of theatrical metamorphoses, overnight stardom.”
Dutton was ultimately miscast when he revisited the role two decades after originating it, but it speaks to the singularity of the talent required to play Levee that the two Broadway mountings both relied on the same performer to bring him to life. How do you measure up to a performance like that?
Boseman had prodigious shoes to fill. If you’re familiar with Wilson’s play, you’ll know that Levee takes great pride in how he maintains his shoes, and Boseman works hard to keep them clean.
When Boseman as Levee finally explodes in the film’s big scene, it nearly blasts the roof off. But it’s an earlier moment, when the escalating rage is still only at a simmer, that reveals his instincts as an actor to be unparalleled.
It’s a monologue about what happened to Levee’s mom when he was just 8 years old, and how the scars of that experience still burn every day. The camera doesn’t move from Boseman’s face as his eyes well with tears. You can see the horror replaying in his mind as he recounts it to us.
It stands in stark contrast to the bouncing spirit we’d been introduced to, but that speaks to Levee as a character of resilience, and Boseman as an instrument of dignity. His line delivery at the end of the speech sears itself into you, especially knowing that this is the actor’s swan song: “I got my time coming to me.”
There’s always an instinct after a performer dies to parse their last major work for meaning: some sign of what they went through, hints at who they were, and proof of what they gave us... what’s being left behind. That’s an emotional— though in some ways, touching—exercise when it comes to Boseman’s work in Ma Rainey.
Levee is a person desperate for the spotlight, and, in the film’s lighter’s parts, it’s a hoot to watch Boseman play that game: the one for attention he always resisted. In the months since his death, a number of anecdotes have surfaced about his quiet generosity.
There are stories like the one Sienna Miller shared about Boseman giving up a portion of his salary for their film 21 Bridges so that she could earn what they both thought was fair pay for her involvement. The tales his past co-stars told about what he was like as a presence on set and scene partner on camera would take too long to list.
But the ultimate testament was Boseman’s generosity in how he handled his battle with cancer while wearing the crown: what it took to be T’Challa, the king who meant so much to so many people, and what it took to keep up with a grueling filming schedule and be such a visible, powerful role model.
He could have used his personal journey for sympathy, fame, and attention. Instead he had a more compassionate mission in mind: a mission for his people that existed outside of himself, no matter what he endured while carrying it out. There was a story that finally was going to be told, and it was not his.
That big monologue in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tears at you, especially watching now, because you can project the ways in which delivering it may have been cathartic for Boseman, who was enduring physical hardship at the time, but who was choosing not to publicly address it. It’s a speech about the pain we carry, the pain no one knows about—how it defines us, but also how we triumph over it.
Levee’s story is a tragic one because it’s about an artist who wasn’t given the chance to live up to his potential. Boseman’s is tragic because he did.