Last night, Netflix and the AFI Film Fest screened George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — based on the play by August Wilson and presented by Denzel Washington, one of the film’s producers. Though reviews are embargoed, there is no doubt that Chadwick Boseman’s performance will resonate deeply by year’s end and beyond, a bittersweet conclusion to a career that was cut much too short by cancer.
Boseman has two monologues that bring the house down and put him squarely in the frontrunner’s spot as one of those unequivocal performances that can’t be denied. Wolfe said in the Q&A afterwards that he wanted the film to show the experience of Jim Crow and the black Southern Diaspora of the 1920s as more than just “moaning in the corner” but rather full of life, defiance, and diversity in philosophy and sexuality. Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey as an overtly lesbian woman whose album the characters in the film have assembled to record. It is also, of course, about how white record executives fleeced black artists — but that’s the subtext and it plays at a low frequency compared to the musings of the characters, which is really what Wilson made his career on — the eternal worlds of ordinarily stereotyped people.
Anthony Hopkins would ordinarily be winning his second lead acting Oscar, in all likelihood, for The Father but now he’s got formidable competition here from Boseman. Boseman, needless to say, would be winning his Oscar posthumously, which sometimes does happen, though it is rare. Since Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director for Roma, that “broke the seal” for Netflix in terms of winning top awards, as did Laura Dern for Marriage Story. Boseman would be the first in the lead acting categories the streaming newbie.
Complicating matters slightly is that Netflix also has Mank, and Da Five Bloods, all featuring impressive lead performances of Kingsley Ben-Adir and Delroy Lindo and Gary Oldman. It doesn’t seem possible the category will be dominated completely by Netflix so you’ll have to figure out how many of these get in. I would imagine that Boseman and Oldman have the best shot.
Additionally, there is Tom Hanks coming in News of the World by Paul Greengrass, there is Ben Affleck in the Way Back who has been singled out for his work, and Riz Ahmed for the Sound of Metal, not to mention Minari’s Steven Yeun, and potentially Daniel Kaluuya for Judas and the Black Messiah.
Either which way you slice it, it’s hard to imagine anyone besting Chadwick Boseman’s remarkable performance, which you will have to see to believe. He does something with this performance that most actors can’t access. I can’t say for sure that it was because he knew it would be among his last performances but considering the movie’s themes of providence and destiny, his monologues seem almost like a rage against fate.
Obviously it’s still very early and who knows what can happen. But this much I do know. It seems that there is a boundary actors may have difficulty crossing when giving a performance. A great director, or great ensemble, can help get them there. Or they can find a way to get to that point where they have nothing to lose. Whatever it was that got Boseman there — it’s not something you see very often. He shines more brightly in this last performance than he ever has — a supernova’s final burst of light. I can’t imagine anyone voting for anyone else.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is Chadwick Boseman’s film. His jaw-dropping performance is full of spry hubris and fiery rage. If his ineffable talent wasn’t enough, Boseman is made immortal by the buoyant smile and infectious charm he brought to everything he touched. RIP pic.twitter.com/pZSQkTgNZG
— Mark Johnson 🎬 (@MarkLikesMovies) November 15, 2020
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a scorcher. Chadwick Boseman is a class act and his delivery of August Wilson’s monologues are impeccable. I miss him. Viola Davis is magnificent, commanding the screen with every word. I’m in awe of Tobias Schliessler’s cinematography. pic.twitter.com/XaR4mUWeyR
— Jazz Tangcay (@jazzt) November 15, 2020
After watching @netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” it made me realize just how unfair life really is. Why would God take @chadwickboseman so soon and deprive us of his immense talent.? Engrave his name on the Oscar right now!#Oscars #MaRaineysBlackBottom #Fox4KC #AAFCA #CCA pic.twitter.com/3nliRRfZDm
— Shawn Edwards (@sedwardskc) November 15, 2020