Why Chadwick Boseman’s Final Performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” Won’t Be His Last
Chadwick Boseman, the beloved actor and star of notable offerings like 42, Get on Up, and his defining superstar outing in Black Panther, as Marvel’s first-ever Black superhero and King of Wakanda, the fictitious African nation, with technologically-advanced status, shockingly passed away from colon cancer in late August at the young age of 43.
The breaking news was hard to internalize, and that had everything to do with the graceful way in which Boseman chose to privately weather the ferociousness of his health crisis without invasiveness of tabloid lenses and extra weight of sorrowful fans, mourning his impending demise, while he’s alive and breathing.
Surrounded by the love and fierce protectiveness of his then-girlfriend, who later became his wife, Simone Ledward and tight-knit circle of confidantes, some of whom were hired as his on-set posse, the South Carolina-born thespian was able to safely complete his awesome mission on earth, before making his blessed transition to ancestral realms.
There’s the temptation to anoint Chadwick Boseman with earned martyrdom for his uncanny capabilities and stamina, that hoisted him through his grueling transformation into T’Challa, the Black Panther, a challengingly complex and physically demanding role, that he diligently prepared for with the understanding that his assignment was much bigger than ambitious pursuits.
Boseman was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2016. Two years prior, he ceremoniously joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the help of Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Evans at El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles. His memorable introduction as Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War was electrifying, and expectedly led to the highly-anticipated announcement of a standalone movie.
By the time shooting began for the Ryan Coogler helmed Black Panther in 2017, boasting a stellar cast of Black leads, well-positioned to elevate the viable currency of Black power on a global scale, the King was already immersed in a daunting battle that threatened more than just his throne.
There’s no imaginable way to assess the spiritual journey that Boseman embarked on for four years, as the dedicated and incredibly disciplined artist, who regally accommodated the intense schedule of the projects he starred in, while also participating in glitzy premieres and the countless press tours both at home and abroad.
In the case of Black Panther, the cultural shapeshifter, that ruled the global box-office with its splashy debut in 2018, Boseman’s serendipitous attachment to the character of T’Challa, even before he was cast, was undoubtedly the fuel to the engine that marvelously got him to the finish line, despite the heavy load he was juggling.
He knew his purpose, and he readily embodied what he had been called to deliver, with the acute awareness of how a culturally impactful film about an unconquered Black superpower, guided by the wisdom and heroism of an African King, would lovingly uplift the Black narrative and tangibly resonate and inspire for generations to come.
The epic success of Black Panther wasn’t shocking to Black Hollywood, but instead served as the middle finger to white Hollywood studio executives, who maintained the decades-long myth of how Black films with Black leads aren’t viable in foreign markets.
Boseman was seemingly on a roll after leading his all-star team to victory, and the loud chatter about his imminent return as the most favored superhero in the MCU in a rumored sequel, began almost immediately, and now of course we are stuck with the brutal reality of never seeing that come to fruition.
Consider that the ailing superstar managed to show up and show out for two back-to-back movies for the blockbuster franchise, The Avengers, and additionally lent his unique skill set to other critically-acclaimed projects like Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, the action-thriller 21 Bridges, and monumental masterpiece, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
The swelteringly emphatic play, written by the illustrious playwright August Wilson, was adapted by Netflix under the superb visualization of the master himself, George C. Wolfe who directs an immaculate ensemble of heavyweights, who affectingly brought to life the powerful screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
It needs to be said that the casting for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, that features Denzel Washington as producer, deserves resounding applause for the collection of Black talents, who leave no stone unturned with tour de force performances led by the incomparable Viola Davis, who has sprinted further away from her admittedly unappealing character in The Help.
Viewers are instantly transported to the era when the “Mother of Blues” professionally known as Ma Rainey, born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, was still defiantly holding on to her fading career, as one of the earliest pioneers of a swooning genre that would eventually be hijacked by marketable white artists.
Wilson’s stirring play isn’t based on real-life events, but from the moment we meet Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, rhythmically gyrating on stage in all her bosom glory, under the admiring gaze of attentive pet, Dussie Mae played by the luminous Taylour Paige, who also has eyes on Chadwick Boseman’s Levee, the attention-seeking trumpet player, there’s no turning back from the explosive mix of oozing sultriness and heightened turmoil.
In a recording studio located in the hustle and bustle of Chicago in 1927, during the season of the Great Migration, we meet members of the band rehearsing before Ma Rainey’s late arrival to continue the task of composing new songs.
The crux of the swirling friction that drips wetter than Ma Rainey’s runny makeup and slippery chest, is centered around four Black men from slightly different generations; Cutler played by the magnificent Colman Domingo, Toledo, elegantly presented by veteran actor, Glynn Turman, Slow Drag, affably played by Michael Potts and the tormentedly scarred Levee, exquisitely portrayed by Boseman.
Knowing what we know about his heath crisis, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the high-octane results from the considerably slender performer, who infused his tragically haunted character with smooth, limber movements that effortlessly glide from scene to scene, even with the burden of suppressed trauma — and Boseman’s best kept secret that had to wait until magic was made.
Viewers can’t escape the burning themes of racial injustice and the systemic violence that has exacted irrevocable harm to the dignity and survivability of Blackness.
We see it in the practiced hostility between Ma Rainey and patronizing white managers who’ve been commissioned to oversee her recordings, while forcing their moneymaker to strongly defend her stance as a gifted Black woman, who demanded the level of respect that matched her output. She was adamant about reaffirming her formidability against the toxicity of white power.
Viola Davis is sensationally stunning in the career-defining role that reestablishes her prowess as the enviable chameleon, who will do whatever it takes to enhance the authenticity of meaty opportunities. She relishes the satisfaction of completely disappearing into the fleshy template of a resurrected Black icon, who was delightfully unbothered and undefeated by the crippling climate of the period she embodied.
In a heart-stopping scene near the beginning of the film, we are assaulted by Levee’s retelling of a childhood horror story, that graphically encapsulates the gross atrocities of white supremacy at the hands of white perpetrators, who criminally changed the destiny of targeted Black lives, that never recover from the torturous reminders of worthlessness and expendability.
We get the feeling that there’s something deeper at play with Levee from the moment his thunderous presence dominates with the fragile volatility and suave arrogance that’s both excitable and potently disarming.
Through the course of the film, Boseman artfully reveals the weightiness of an oppressed Black man, who is a functioning human detonator, not by his own design. Levee is inwardly imploding from the frustration of not being able to outgrow the shackles preventing his triumphant emancipation, which he needs to believe is reachable to prevent the unfathomable from occurring.
The heaps of accolades and inclusion of potential Oscar nominations for both Davis and Boseman, is well-deserved based on how each them bravely flexed those muscles of pure artistry to exceptionally embody the luxuriously symbolic traits of two strong-willed Black characters, who are victims of the same disease that manifests with personalized renderings.
His fellow bandmates are amusingly aware of the visible chip on Levee’s sunken shoulder, and viewers can sense the pridefulness from the wound that won’t heal, unless he can capture the lottery of dreams come true, that has thus far eluded him, despite his immense talent as a musician and bona fide hustler.
We really get the full dramatization of Levee’s internal gauge through Boseman’s electrified monologues that play out with symphonic urgency, especially the scenes where he’s sparring with Colman Domingo’s Cutler, a Black man of faith and a straight shooter, who clashes with the erratic temperature of a mouthy competitor, daring to vocally condemn God.
Boseman is the bursting scene stealer during the chunks of guttural responses spewing out of Levee in retaliation to Cutler’s accusations of blasphemy and the promise of God’s vengeance, which is bitterly mocked and reinforced with a bevy of curses from a frozen soul, that has been left out in the cold for longer than rescuable.
We avidly watch Levee turn into an attack dog, violently barking at the God he swears won’t strike him down like Cutler promises, regardless of how he recklessly abuses the holy name of the Almighty, who cruelly forsakes his plight, and the fateful predicament of loved ones.
We are now aware of what was at stake for a vibrant performer, who was losing his fight against a terminal illness, and that heightens the boiling crescendo of Boseman’s emotiveness during Levee’s provocativeness towards Cutler, which ends with the haughty retort:
Your God ain’t shit.
In an earlier encounter with Cutler about the same subject of unshakable faith, Levee throws it back in the face of his pious nemesis with foamy bitterness:
God don’t mean nothing to me.
It’s clear that Levee’s spiritual decline is colliding with Boseman’s waning physicality, creating the perfect storm for flying debris to settle where they may, in the operatic prolificness that recalls the Celtic legend of the thorn bird.
It purposely selects the tree with the sharpest spine and savagely impales itself. In the throes of utter agony, it lets out the sweetest melody that outshines and entrances those who are lucky enough to hear the dying bird’s soulful testament to how attainable greatness comes at a high cost.
Chadwick Boseman was blessed enough not to suffer the fate of Levee’s downward spiral that takes a horrific turn for the worst at the end of the film. The cherished actor had the good fortune of maximizing the durability of his unmatchable talent — as a Black artist who soared on a higher frequency than most of his peers.
The heartfelt grieving over the immeasurable loss of an otherworldly agent of excellence who was way ahead of his time, is exacerbated by the finality of his death, that robs us of a dazzling future with more gems, starring one of the best of his generation.
The truth is that Chadwick Boseman’s final performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” won’t be his last.
His succulent soulfulness will be the endearing legacy that will continuously amplify and solidify the invaluableness of the community he nobly served, and celebrated as the gorgeous interpretation of Black supremeness at its finest.
Boseman dwelled in the sincerity of his purpose, and unlike his broken character, Levee, there was a stoic acceptance of God’s unchangeable plan, which counters the sensibilities, when you consider the heartbreaking derailment that occurs right in the middle of his heralded ascension as Hollywood royalty.
Scoring an Oscar nomination with a potential win for best actor is the expected outcome for an unquenchable spirit, who exemplified the meaning of victoriously taking that final bow after serenading bereft admirers with a soul-stirring melody that will be infinitely empowering.
We have Chadwick Boseman for as long as we’re alive.
That’s how the last becomes the first and the cyclical love fest expands to encompass the immortality of the chosen one.