• Golden Globe Awards

Chadwick Boseman on Jazz, Africa and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

The late Chadwick Boseman received a posthumous Best Actor award for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Following a major surge in his career in the last years of his life, in the hugely iconic roles such as Black Panther, Avengers and Da Five Bloods, Boseman succumbed to cancer in August of last year at the age of 43, after a four-year battle. He never stopped working until the end.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was adapted from a 1982 stage play by August Wilson and was directed by George C. Wolfe. Boseman plays a volatile, hotheaded coronet player, Levee, in the blues singer’s band, with Viola Davis in the titular role.
Like a coiled snake or a primed fighter, Boseman is mesmerizing in the role, seemingly on the verge of rebellion or eruption at any moment. Although he was really ill and depleted in energy during the shoot, he compromises nothing in what he gives to this performance.
“There was nothing that existed in Chadwick’s performance – or being, or anything – that caused me to have any concern,” director George Wolfe told Vanity Fair. “He would dive fully into the work, and the note I had discussed was fully calibrated into his choices.”
Outside of his family and closest colleagues, no-one knew Chadwick was sick and he gave some of his finest performances in the last few years of his life. Despite blossoming professionally latterly, Chadwick continuously did good work that was not always rewarded.
He made several biopics of African American icons, such as Get on Up where he played James Brown, Jackie Robinson in 42, Thurgood Marshall in Thurgood, before convincingly assuming the mantle of the Black Panther, first in Captain America: Civil War and subsequently in the stand-alone smash hit, Black Panther.
In Ma Rainey, there is none of the stoicism of Wakandan leader T’Challa; Levee is full of fury, impatient with toeing the line in the band and in the greater world. He is complex and sly; his troubles clear on his face from a simmering trauma he does not know what to do with.
In an interview with the HFPA for Black Panther, Boseman spoke of his on-going desire to break barriers with his roles for other African Americans and how he schooled himself on rituals and roots while studying theater at Howard University.
“Throughout my college years, I read about African cultures and I worked in an African bookstore, so this experience allowed that, a closer rite of passage and theater and ritual have always been connected”, he said. “So, in this movie, you see us do a ritual, a rite of passage, a coordination of the king. That experience was not just one that I had, playing a role, but even the extras that were on the set that were up in the mountains and caves of the waterfall scene, they also had that experience.
“They came back on, we shot that for weeks, and they came, even though it was difficult for them to be up there for weeks. They came because they were experiencing this thing for the first time. The African American got disconnected in some cases too. So, the beauty of this movie was that we got to share that with them and then share it also with the world.”
Boseman grew up in South Carolina, the youngest son of Carolyn and Leroy Boseman. Initially drawn to sports, he was a talented basketball player, who switched to dance, inspired by his older brother Kevin. After one of his school friends was shot dead, he turned to theater to help him process the trauma by writing a play about it.
At Howard, he was classmates and friends with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Susan Kelechi Watson and he is remembered for his style and his cool. At one point he and some of his classmates were accepted into a summer theatre program at Oxford University, taught by Sir Ben Kingsley, among others. Because of a shortage of money, he very nearly turned down this golden opportunity.
If it hadn’t been for a friend of Chadwick’s who reached out to Denzel Washington, there is no knowing what might have become of his career. When Washington heard about this prestigious offer, he immediately offered to fund the trip. Boseman never forgot this generous gesture which enabled him to grow into the powerhouse he became and remained.
Accepting a lifetime achievement award from the AFI in 2019 he paid a gracious tribute to Washington. “An offering from a sage and a king is more than silver and gold. It is a seed of hope, a bud of faith. There is no Black Panther without Denzel Washington.”
Gone from this earth at a mere 43, Chadwick Boseman made an indelible mark on culture and cinema.