Watch Chadwick Boseman’s Astounding Final Performance
Few actors have ever been so genuine or manifested such a profound performance.
Boseman’s performance in “Ma Rainey”s Black Bottom” ranges from happy-go-lucky to rageful, from the deep and tragic sadness of an 8 year old, to the joyful, seductive patter of a ladies’ man. The melody of his language matches the trilling and throatiness of his horn playing. I’ve not seen that range of emotion in an actor’s performance ever before. I doubt we’ll see it again.
Chadwick Boseman’s performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the epitome of playwright August Wilson’s themes that are the foundation of all his plays.
Boseman’s character Levee echoes “the poetry in the everyday language of Black America,” and his character is one that “offers (white Americans) a different way to look at Black Americans,” as Wilson himself puts it.
Wilson’s words and scenes demand their all from actors. His characters are multi-faceted and relatable while illustrating various aspects of being a Black person in the U.S. in different eras.
Ma Rainey’s era was the 1920s, where Black performers were revered, but faced Jim Crow laws and systemic racism and injustice nonetheless. Wilson shines a spotlight on the demands society, culture, and pride makes on Black people in every era, and the tightropes they often walk to survive and in an efforts to thrive.
Viola Davis was astounding as Ma Rainey. She captured the look, the sound, the hard won success, and the proud attitude Ma cultivated to survive as a Black woman in the white man’s world of music recording.
Chadwick Boseman, however, tore up the stage as Levee. August Wilson’s works were all written as stage plays, and as they say in theater, Boseman chewed the scenery, but not in a negative way. During his monologue yelling at God, the scenery and the other actors fade away, and all you can focus on is him and his emotion.
All of August Wilson’s dialogue is impactful. You walk out of his plays and movies with entire scenes, drawn from the monologues and dialog alone, etched into your memory. When Boseman as Levee describes the injustice and horror of witnessing his mother’s rape by white men when he was a child, that scene feels as if it becomes a part of your own history.
The current injustice here is that Boseman was suffering from the cancer that killed him shortly after filming “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” We didn’t know it, and wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t died from it.
He was noticeably thinner, but actors often lose or gain weight for a role. If he was tired from treatment, you’d never guess it. Even his costars didn’t know. Boseman was in most scenes, and carried four of the major ones, including the ending. His energy level was unmatched, even next to all the other indelible performances by the other actors.
Spittle shot from his mouth in the rage scenes. His eyes sparkled brightly, even maniacally, when excited. His love scene was joyful and wild. His tears move us to tears. In essence, a light shone from within him throughout.
Boseman makes us care about Levee. His character could easily have been unlikeable, as he aggravates and argues with the other band members and with Ma. Instead Boseman makes us see and want to comfort and protect the little 8 year old boy inside him. He makes us want to support his dream and his music. We want to fall in love with him, even as we see the dangerous, angry man underneath. The one created by white people harming his family, and stepping on his neck every chance they got.
Seeing that anger at whites, too dangerous to direct where it belongs, deflected onto Toledo when the piano player steps on his bright yellow shoes, is devastating. The rehearsal room becomes a microcosm of the anger and hurt Black people felt and feel toward oppressors, but which too often has been distorted toward themselves or one another in settings like these. Nobody shows that tragic dynamic more passionately than Boseman as Levee.
Boseman made a career before Black Panther of playing iconic, historical Black men. He won acclaim for playing Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court Judge, and Jackie Robinson, the first Major League Baseball player who was Black. His fictional characters also reflect his desire to uplift the stories of courageous Black men.
While it’s agreed that Chadwick Boseman shines in all of his too few roles, his turn as Levee is special. He was dying, but we can’t tell, so energetic is his enactment. He makes us feel the pain, joy, excitement, anger and danger of a gifted Black man in America in the 1920’s. He shows us Levee as a universal figure who, like many of us, becomes his own worst enemy. And he does it all with a grace and ease that suspends disbelief, as all great performances must do.
Watch this incandescent performance to honor one of the greatest actors of our time and all time, gone too soon. Watch it to gain a deeper understanding of the struggles of gifted Black entertainers. Listen to hear the Blues. As Viola Davis as Ma Rainey says in the movie, “Black people don’t sing the Blues to feel better. They sing it because they have to, in order to get out of bed in the morning.”
After meeting August Wilson, Chadwick Boseman quoted, “He helped me find my song.” That’s abundantly clear in his performance of Levee. And we all benefit.