At the very end of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a short message is displayed on screen dedicating the film to Chadwick Boseman, “in celebration of his artistry and heart.” This is, of course, the late actor’s final screen role following his tragic death in August after a secret battle with colon cancer, and what a fitting showcase it is for the Black Panther star. His immense talent was never in doubt, but this film offers a painful reminder of just how magnetic a screen presence he was, just what the world of cinema has lost, and just how much more he had to give. His artistry and heart have never been more clear.
An adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name, the film stars Viola Davis as the titular character – a legendary and pioneering blues musician who recorded more than 100 songs in the 1920s. Davis’ powerhouse performance in the role is superb, but make no mistake this is Boseman’s show. Starring as Levee, the youngest member of Rainey’s supporting band who has grand plans to carve out his own career in the music industry, Boseman’s character is on the surface freewheeling and exuberant, an energetic young upstart full of hope and ambition.
But, not unlike the actor himself, great pain lurks beyond the surface. This first comes to light in an electrifying monologue just 20 minutes into the film, in which Levee expounds on a racist attack on his mother he witnessed as a child, and from there he never looks back. The way in which Boseman effortlessly switches between joy and trauma, pleasure and pain, is nothing short of miraculous – there is a realness and a rawness to the performance which ensures the audience feels every emotion with Levee.
And while Boseman’s performance is the standout component of the film, it is also far from its only positive quality. This is the second of a 10-movie deal initially struck between Denzel Washington and HBO (before moving to Netflix) to bring the work of Wilson to the screen – following in the footsteps of 2016’s Fences, which Washington himself directed and starred in, alongside Ma Rainey star Viola Davis.
That earlier film boasted similarly exceptional performances – Washington and Davis were both Oscar-nominated, with Davis winning for Best Supporting Actress – but was often hamstrung by its staginess, feeling more like a filmed stage play than a piece of cinema in its own right. The same is not true of Black Bottom, which despite being largely set across just two rooms has real energy and zip to it, never appearing static, aided perhaps by its shorter runtime and the electricity of the musical numbers. Despite being written in the ’80s and set in the ’20s, the script’s themes of racial tension and the struggle for creative control feel just as relevant today.
So what of Boseman’s Oscar chances? Should he be honoured at the delayed awards ceremony next April, he would become only the second actor to win posthumously, following Heath Ledger’s 2009 win for his unforgettable turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Based on this performance, there’s absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t be in the conversation – in fact, it’s likely that even if a full slate of films had been released in 2020 Boseman would have been at the forefront of most people’s minds.
In recent years, several winners of the Best Actor Oscar have been, for my money, rather underwhelming – Gary Oldman and Rami Malek are very fine actors, but their winning performances as Winston Churchill and Freddie Mercury respectively amounted to little more than skilled though vaguely cartoonish impressions of incredibly famous figures. What Boseman does, breathing life into a complex and nuanced character, is so much more impressive – such that a win for him would have represented a breath of fresh air even if the circumstances were different.
That’s not to say there aren’t other performances from the last twelve months that would be equally deserving – critics have raved about Oldman’s turn in David Fincher’s Mank for example, while Anthony Hopkins has received all sorts of acclaim for his lead performance in The Father – but it would seem so much more fitting to honour Boseman for this exceptional final turn. Regardless of potential Oscar glory though, this performance sees Boseman secure his astonishing legacy and heighten his reputation as one of the finest actors of his generation – a talent and a man taken far, far too soon.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is streaming on Netflix from 18th December. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide