I had to sit with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for a while after viewing it the Friday it was released. It’s a terrific movie under any circumstances, but of course, the untimely passing of Chadwick Boseman added even more weight to the film. I remember after he died hearing that Netflix was going to push Boseman in the Best Actor category for the Oscars and wondering if it was really a “lead” performance. Was this a cynical move by the studio to take advantage of a tragedy? After all, isn’t Ma Rainey (played by the incomparable Viola Davis) about Ma Rainey?
Well, yes, it is. But it’s also very much about a horn player named Levee played by Boseman. And my goodness, how remarkable he is in the part. Knowing what we know now, it is exceedingly obvious that Boseman was physically diminished by his cancer while shooting Ma. He’s rail-thin with sunken cheeks and weary eyes—gone is the muscular and regal presence of his T’Challa. Yet, somehow, his gifts remained untouched. He is a true force of nature in the film. He’s charming, devilish, and both bigger than and smaller than life at the same time in an exceedingly complicated role. Boseman’s Levee hides his hurt behind braggadocio. He’s the kind of person who refers to himself in the third person incessantly—not so much to convince you of his importance, but to convince himself that he matters in a world that relentlessly tells him he doesn’t.
We are used to seeing Boseman in dignified (while charismatic) roles. Here, he’s something altogether different, something we’ve never seen from him before, and he is electric. There is a scene in the movie where he stands in the middle of a room, looks to the ceiling and rails viciously (“Come on and turn your back on me!”) at a god that he’s sure pays him no useful mind. It’s extraordinary, crushing, heartbreaking, and all the more so because of the painful subtext attached to this, his final performance. It is a moment so powerful and harrowing that I honestly wanted it to stop. I simply didn’t know how much more I could take. Art imitates life. Life imitates art. It was all too much.
When the scene ended I had to catch my breath. Hell, I had to remember how to breathe. One has to wonder what was going on in Boseman’s mind as he spat out August Wilson’s words like his whole life depended on it. Maybe for him, in that moment, it did. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like it. When Sasha wrote about Boseman’s performance last month she said that you would have to see it to believe it. She was right. Try as I might, what he did defies description.
I wasn’t just sad when Boseman died—I was angry. How could someone so gifted and (according to every single person who knew him) decent be stolen from us like this? In a year full of so much sorrow and unfairness, this loss seemed especially mean-spirited. I poured my thoughts into a raw and slightly ragged eulogy that I could barely stand to write. The day I watched Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, those feelings surfaced again. This beautiful, intelligent, gifted man had so many more shades to show us. And now we will never see them.
It just breaks your fucking heart.
I’ll leave it to others to debate whether god actually did turn his back on Chadwick Boseman—that conversation is well beyond my purview—but I do know that the Oscars shouldn’t. And yes, I know doing a “For Your Consideration” piece on the probable frontrunner may be more than a little obvious, but here I am anyway.
I know Boseman’s performance has many things going for it beyond just the acting. There will be sentiment for this being his last role, for what he suffered to deliver it, and, of course, for his far-too-early death. But I don’t think that’s why voters should necessarily choose Boseman (although it will surely be a factor). I think Academy members can vote for him with a clear conscience and without sentiment. Because the performance Boseman gave before he left this world is otherworldly, and that’s the only reason they should need.