Saturday, November 28, 2020

Chadwick Boseman’s Final Film Role: “A Reed Instrument for Every Painful Emotion”

I’m looking forward to the December 18 Netflix premiere of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director George C. Wolfe and writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson's adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name.

The film stars Viola Davis as the real-life Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as the fictional trumpeter Levee.

The title of both the play and the film was the name of a song by Ma Rainey, one that makes obvious allusions to the Black Bottom dance which was a national craze in the 1920s. Ma Rainy’s song, however, is not itself dance music. She was after all, the “Mother of the Blues.”

George C. Wolfe's film adaptation of August Wilson's play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which opened in select theaters in October, is being acclaimed by critics, who laud the performances of Davis and Boseman, as well as the costumes and production design.

Following is the film’s official trailer.

As has been previously documented here at The Wild Reed (see here and here), Chadwick Boseman tragically died from colon cancer, three months ago today, during the film’s post-production. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is therefore his final film appearance.

In honor of Chadwick Boseman I share today some of the rave reviews his performance has been garnering from critics.


Viola Davis plays the real-life Ma Rainey, the Georgia singer dubbed the Mother of the Blues. Chadwick Boseman invests body and soul into Levee, the hot-headed trumpeter who dares to lock horns with Ma in a shabby Chicago recording studio where they’re paid to make music the way the white bosses want it. The time is 1927, but the bristling racial tensions feel as timely as ever.

– Peter Travers
Excerpted from “Ma Rainey Is a Gut Punch
Good Morning America
November 20, 2020

When Chadwick Boseman first appears on screen in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it feels like a stab in the heart. Boseman’s death in August from colon cancer at the age of 43 still seems that shocking. It’s a sign of his artistry that before long we can put that real-life tragedy aside and see him as Levee, the troubled young musician at the centre of this exciting, trenchant film version of the August Wilson play.

Boseman’s stirring performance is matched by Viola Davis as legendary blues singer Ma Rainey. The story takes place in 1927 on one hot summer afternoon in Chicago, where Ma and her band are recording several songs, including the one that gives the film its title. Davis makes Ma a dynamic force, a blowsy figure with smudged makeup and an insolent glare at the world. She and other members of her band clash with Levee, a trumpeter who is ambitious, arrogant but not necessarily wrong about wanting to bring a livelier, jazz-influenced style to Ma’s old bluesy music. Fierce generational clashes erupt between Levee and the other, older band members. Glynn Turman as Toledo and Colman Domingo as Cutler bring immense naturalness to their roles. But the deeper theme is the oppression black people have experienced throughout history. Wilson is one of the great American playwrights, and one of his gifts was to embody that history in precisely drawn individuals. Ma Rainey may be the film’s title character, but Levee is its focus as he grapples with the past. Boseman soars in the role, which is his most complicated, more nuanced than the iconic T’Challa in Black Panther and other heroic parts he has played, such as the Supreme Court justice in Marshall and Jackie Robinson in 42.

. . . [Boseman’s] performance displays a strong physicality from the start. Levee slides, swaggers and dances around the rehearsal room, proud of his new shoes, bragging about writing his own music and starting his own band. Beneath his smile, he has demons close to the surface. When the other band members accuse him of pandering to the white owner of the studio, he launches into the film’s central monologue. Over five minutes of screen time, Boseman goes from pained to angry and back again as he tells the harrowing story of an event he witnessed as a child and the lessons he learned from his father’s vengeance on the white men behind it. Wolfe varies camera angles and includes reaction shots, but the scene remains unfussy as the words spill out of Levee. A later monologue is even more explosive, as Levee rages at God, pointing a knife toward the heavens and shouting, “Did you turn your back on me?” It’s easy to see this as an Oscar-bait scene, which it probably is, but Boseman deserves the awards buzz. While his delivery is fiery, it is not histrionic. It is piercing.

– Caryn James
Excerpted from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Review:
‘Chadwick Boseman Soars’

BBC Culture
November 20, 2020

Chadwick Boseman gives a moving performance as the fiercely talented but insecure Levee, crucified by a childhood experience of racist violence and dreaming of fronting his own band.

This is Boseman’s final performance on screen, and what a glorious performance to go out on. It is a head-butting confrontation of the galácticos: Davis and Boseman are each the immovable object and irresistible force. Amusingly, both are concerned with their feet. Poor Levee has just blown every cent on a fancy pair of shiny shoes and he is always showing them off, hopping and dancing around like a little kid. Ma Rainey’s feet, on the other hand, are in agony. We see her picking her way down the stairs at her hotel in discomfort, yet her rolling, heavy-set gait is part of what imposes her authority on the room. She gets to wear a pair of comfortable indoor slippers in the studio and doesn’t move anywhere she doesn’t want to.

Levee has, quite without Ma’s permission, prepared an ingenious new version of Black Bottom that downplays her slow, bluesy vocals and gives a more demanding, uptempo orchestration for the boys in the band: Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and of course Levee himself with his flashy trumpet. This is with the sneaky connivance of the white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and studio boss Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) who sense this is how to make it a lucrative crossover hit.

Ma furiously rejects the new version, sensing – accurately – that this means getting upstaged and that Levee wants to use her prestige as the launching pad for his own stardom.

. . . So who has the power in this contest of wills? In some ways it is Ma Rainey herself – she is the talent, she must be placated, and everything depends on her – yet the band are bleakly unimpressed about her ability to connect with non-black audiences.

Levee has power of his own with new ideas about music, but it is the duplicitous management who control it, and the tragedy and the violence are ignited by the band’s derision at Levee’s sycophantic attitude to these white chiefs. It triggers Levee’s own memories of racist violence and humiliation – and while others in the band get set-piece speeches, too, there is something a bit contrived in these theatrical arias. But they are delivered with such intensity, and the film has a genuine coup in its final scene, showing how Levee’s talent is to be exploited and the way black culture itself is destined to be appropriated.

Boseman’s face is so open, so transparent, so needy – he is a reed instrument for every painful emotion. It is such a generous performance: the portrayal of a man sacrificed on the altar of his own past.

– Peter Bradshaw
Excerpted from “Chadwick Boseman Glorious in His Final Film Role
The Guardian
November 20, 2020

[Playwright August] Wilson writes characters who reveal themselves in layers, and though the movie gives Levee a cinematic introduction of his own, each scene adds complexity. Boseman strides into the film, lean and restless, unsettled. The confidence and composure of the icons he has played before – Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, T’Challa – has melted away into a kind of nervous insecurity we’ve never seen in the actor. Levee is hungry, horny; he has much to prove. It’s there in the way he flirts with every pretty young thing – including “Ma’s girl,” Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) – and it’s there in the way he blows a week’s wages on a pair of new shoes.

Levee prowls the dank room where the band rehearses, preoccupied by a heavy, rusted door on the back wall that becomes a clear symbol for his ambitions: Is it a shortcut or a dead end? The history of modern American music is paved with the appropriation and outright theft of Black culture. That tradition continues today, tracing back at least as far as the moment that Wilson, inspired by the blues, has imagined here.

The playwright conceived Levee as a tragic figure, and real life doubled down. Mighty as Davis’ performance may be, this is Boseman’s movie: Ma Rainey’s name is right there in the title, but Levee’s trying to hijack her show at every turn, so it makes sense that our eyes should be on him as he starts to implode – a star collapsing, leaving it all on the screen. How fortunate that Boseman’s legacy should include this film, an homage to Black art that’s tough enough to confront the costs of making it.

– Peter Debruge
Excerpted from “Chadwick Boseman Goes Out on Top
With Timely August Wilson Drama

November 20, 2020

Boseman, evincing the same integrity he clung to his entire career . . . imparts to [the] seething, shattered [Levee] the gift of a broken soul, riven by anger and trauma, and makes him all the more human for it. His final moments of screen time are among his darkest, and also his finest.

– Justin Chang
Los Angeles Times
November 20, 2020

And then there’s Boseman. His Levee always seems to have a glint in his eye, so sure is he of himself and his future stardom, and Boseman marries the high-energy flamboyance he brought to playing James Brown in Get On Up with the soulfulness he brought to the MCU’s T’Challa and so many others. It all comes to a head in two searing monologues in which Levee rages at God – a rare sight for a Black man on screen, making it all the more visceral – and Boseman empties the clip in both scenes, eking out every drop of emotion. It’s the finest performance of a career that ended way too soon earlier this year, and it’s simultaneously thrilling and sad to watch him in action here.

– Amon Warmann
November 20, 2020

The flashy role belongs to Boseman, and he plays Levee with such anger, desperation, glee, and fury that there are times where you have to remind yourself to breathe watching his performance. Levee is an astonishing role because you have a character who thinks he knows the score, but we’re all waiting for the fallout from the harsh lessons he’s about to endure. He has the talent and the bravado, and it simply doesn’t matter because he’s part of a system that won’t accept either because of his Black skin. The levels this role requires are mind-boggling as we’re never allowed to simply dismiss Levee as a hothead or embrace him as misunderstood genius. He’s all of these things, and yet Boseman consistently elicits our sympathy with every gesture and line. In the hands of a lesser actor, Levee’s monologue or outbursts would feel like playing to the rafters of a non-existent auditorium, but Boseman is pitch perfect. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance in what should have been a long career filled with Oscars.

– Matt Goldberg
Excerpted from “Chadwick Boseman Deserves to Win an Oscar for This
November 20, 2020

This is undoubtedly Boseman’s show and will likely live on as his greatest work. . . . What makes the movie unbearably heartbreaking is just how well the star fits among the greats, delivering Wilson’s heady words with the electrifying verve of someone you’d think had decades of credits to his name. By the end, we’re left to wonder just how much Boseman and Levee had left to give the world. Here, reality and fiction blend in a way that’s nearly impossible to overlook.

– Shannon Miller
Excerpted from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Is One Final,
Brilliant Showcase for Chadwick Boseman

AV Club
November 20, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to leave Hollywood studios in flux, there are still key decisions being discussed internally about the Oscars, such as actors’ placements in the acting categories. With six months until the Academy Awards, there are several factors needed in order to set a film up for awards season success. Without events to campaign and (metaphorically) kiss babies, the performances and films will be speaking for themselves.

Like the industry, Oscar predictions are in flux, but the biggest unknown is in the male acting categories, which are showing a real fluidity and will continue to do so throughout the season. One of the major questions regards the late Chadwick Boseman and where Netflix will campaign him for his upcoming work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. While many pundits and prognosticators assume he will ultimately fall within the supporting actor category, there are rumblings that he could be campaigned as a lead actor. A representative from Netflix did not confirm either scenario, but multiple sources who have seen the film say Boseman is one of the rare cases that straddles the line between lead and supporting. Charles S. Dutton, who was nominated for a Tony award for playing the same role, was cited in supporting, but the late Theresa Merritt, who played Ma Rainey, was also nominated in supporting. We fully expect a Viola Davis best actress push for the title role, but nowadays you never know where the chips may fall.

. . . The other Boseman vehicle, Da 5 Bloods from Spike Lee, is getting a considerable push from Netflix. Boseman’s work as Stormin’ Norman is another career highlight which begs the question: Is there a possibility for double acting nominations? There have been twelve actors in the history of the Academy who have received two acting nominations the same year, most recently with Scarlett Johansson last year for Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit. In those twelve instances, seven of them have resulted in wins (Fay Bainter, Teresa Wright, Barry Fitzgerald, Jessica Lange, Al Pacino, Holly Hunter and Jamie Foxx). There has never been an actor to receive two posthumous acting nods in the same year.

Critics’ reactions to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are starting to trickle in and Chadwick Boseman’s final onscreen performance is being touted as “as invigorating as anticipated.”

That’s good news not only for Boseman’s legacy, but also for the late actor’s Oscar chances, which are high this year since he has not one but two movies for which he could potentially be nominated.

The first is the aforementioned Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in which he is being campaigned in lead actor by Netflix. Starring opposite Oscar winner Viola Davis, Boseman plays trumpeteer Levee, an enigmatic and ambitious musician.

Some have argued that he may have been better placed in supporting, where he might have more of a chance to win, but Netflix have decided he is best placed in lead since he has a commanding presence in the adaptation about a 1920s blues singer.

It’s a shrewd decision given the fact that the second movie Boseman could be nominated for is also a Netflix movie: Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. Boseman plays “Stormin’” Norman Earl Holloway, the leader of a squad of Black US Army soldiers during the Vietnam war.

This role is more clearly a supporting one – Boseman appears in flashbacks during the Vietnam War timeline, wherein the present day story follows Delroy Lindo’s character, Paul, travelling back to Vietnam many years later.

The actor, then, could theoretically earn two Oscar nominations this awards season, in the same way Jamie Foxx did back in 2005 when he was nominated in supporting actor for Collateral and won in lead actor for Ray, a biopic of blind singer Ray Charles.

Boseman died in August following a four-year battle with colon cancer.

If he did manage to earn one or even both of those nominations, he would be only the seventh actor to earn a posthumous Oscar nomination. If he were to win, he’d just be the third actor to win posthumously ever.

– Jacob Sarkisian
Excerpted from “Chadwick Boseman Could Become the
7th Actor to Receive a Posthumous Oscar Nomination

November 19, 2020

UPDATE . . .

Chadwick Boseman[’s] performance [is] every bit as virtuosic as [Viola] Davis’s. As the bantamweight challenger to Ma Rainey’s title, Boseman’s Levee is alert, impatient and fleet of foot. Where she finds her power in taking her time, Levee finds his in speed and impulse; having been plucked from the Southern minstrel circuit to achieve stardom in the North (a trajectory that is efficiently covered in an opening montage), Ma Rainey is rightfully suspicious of the White producers eager to exploit her talent and popular appeal; Levee, for his part, is convinced that he can join their game and win it from the inside.

Similar debates – accommodation versus revolution, assimilation versus cultural integrity, theft versus homage – run through Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom like the ostinato of a smoothly traveling bass line.

. . . [Director George] Wolfe keeps the production simple, albeit with attractively rich visual values and gorgeous costumes, allowing the performances to exert their mesmerizing force. And nowhere is that magnetism more palpable than when Davis and Boseman are going toe to toe, their energies repelling one another one moment and fusing the next.

It’s both exhilarating and deeply upsetting, watching two actors at the height of their powers, but knowing that this is the final screen appearance of Boseman, who died in August. He might have been best known for playing a superhero in Black Panther, but the effortlessness with which he inhabits Levee reminds viewers of just how profound and still-untapped his talents were. (His most stirring speech, an angry argument with God, can't help but carry a tragic double meaning here.) There aren’t enough words to describe just how breathtaking Davis's performance is as Ma Rainey. When it comes to Boseman’s, on the other hand, only one seems to suffice: Damn, damn, damn.

– Ann Hornaday
Excerpted from “Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman
Are exhilarating in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

The Washington Post
December 1, 2020

NEXT: Celebrating a Special Day

Related Off-site Links:
First Look: Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – Kyle Buchanan (The New York Times, September 30, 2020).
This Will Be Chadwick Boseman's Final Movie – Shane O'Neill (Looper, August 29, 2020).
Read the Reviews for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman – Dan Meyer (Playbill, November 23, 2020).
“A Man With a Purpose”: Chadwick Boseman’s Life’s Work Is Far From Over – Kate Storey (Esquire, October 6, 2020).
Black Panther Star Chadwick Boseman Dies of Cancer at 43 – Ryan Pearson (Associated Press, August 28, 2020).
How Chadwick Boseman Embodies Black Male Dignity – Reggie Ugwu (The New York Times, January 2, 2019).
How Chadwick Boseman’s Humility Made Him a Star – Matthew Jacobs (The Huffington Post, September 2, 2020).
Chadwick Boseman: The Lasting Impact of a Life Well-Lived – Tiffany Johnson (Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, September 3, 2020).
Remembering the Joy, Strength and Inspiration of Chadwick Boseman – Moira Macdonald (Seattle Times, September 13, 2020).

UPDATES: Entertainment Weekly Names Chadwick Boseman An Entertainer of the Year for 2020 – Rachel Paige (, December 1, 2020).
Chadwick Boseman: A Hero Remembered – Angie Thomas (Entertainment Weekly, December 1, 2020).
A Tribute Fit for a King: Chadwick Boseman to Receive Posthumous Honor at 2020 Gotham Awards – Shanelle Genai (The Root, December 3, 2020).
Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis Selected for Gotham Award Tributes – Dave McNary (Variety, December 3, 2020).
Chadwick Boseman Will Be a Hero for the Ages at MTV Movie and TV Awards: Greatest of All TimeMTV News (December 4, 2020).
Viola Davis Reflects on Chadwick Boseman’s Death: “Something in My Spirit Feels Like He Was Ready”Yahoo! Entertainment (December 9, 2020).
Chadwick Boseman Remembered – Ruth E. Carter (The Guardian, December 12, 2020).
Denzel Washington Told Chadwick Boseman to Get Married While Filming Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: “Man, You Need to Put a Ring On That Finger” – Erin Donnelly (Yahoo! Entertainment, December 13, 2020).
Heartbreak and Transcendence: Bringing Ma Rainey's Black Bottom to the Screen – John D'Amelio and Steven Tyler (CBS News: Sunday Morning, December 13, 2020).
Viola Davis Discusses Her Approach to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Chadwick Boseman’s "Powerful" Final Performance – Peter Sblendorio (New York Daily News, December 14, 2020).
Why Chadwick Boseman’s Final Performance, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Is His Greatest – Bill Goodykoontz (Arizona Republic, December 14, 2020).
Jazz Icon Branford Marsalis on Work With “Perfectionist” Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey – Alex Biese (Asbury Park Press, December 15, 2020).
Can Anyone Beat Chadwick Boseman for the Best-Actor Oscar? – Kyle Buchannan (The New York Times, January 13, 2021).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Remembering Chadwick Boseman
Honoring An Icon
Chadwick Boseman’s Timeless Message to Young Voters: “You Can Turn Our Nation Around”
The Important Cultural Moment That Is Black Panther
Celebrating Black Panther – Then and Now
“Avengers Assemble!”
Jason Johnson on Stan Lee's Revolutionary Legacy
Another First for Black Panther
“Something Special,” Indeed!
Queer Black Panther

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