(August 29, 2020). Actor Chadwick Boseman’s last role – as a trumpeter named Levee in legendary blues artist Ma Rainey’s Georgia Jazz Band – is yet to be seen.
But if it’s like any other role he took on during his stellar acting career, we will be blessed for having experienced it when it is released on Netflix later this year.
You see, when it came to motion pictures, Boseman played titans among giants, whether it be in professional sports where he played a baseball pioneer (Jackie Robinson) who went where no Black man had gone before in the major leagues, or in music where he took on the role of perhaps the most dynamic soul singer of any generation (James Brown), one with more chart entries than any other Black singer of the 20th Century, or in the American judicial system where he played a young Thurgood Marshall, the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Even as a Marvel Comics superhero in Black Panther, Boseman’s main character was royalty among other heroes, fearlessly ruling an entire fictional African nation and reminding people of all races that, even in life as it had been in fiction, we Black folks had been and still are Kings and Queens in our own right.
Sadly though, his next stint as Levee will be a posthumous release, as the young acting icon passed away Friday, August 28, in Los Angeles after a quiet four-year battle with colon cancer. He was 43.
Boseman’s death was shocking on so many levels. How could a talent so young with so much promise be snatched from the world so soon? How could a king among kings be taken down by a disease that is among the most curable of cancers, at an age where we’re told many of us have another seven years before we’re even supposed to be thinking about it?
How could it be in this year where the issues of racial injustice and inequality are being reckoned in this country on a daily basis could we lose one of our brightest beacons – in a year where we’ve already lost so many (Rep. John Lewis, Rev. C. T. Vivian, Kobe Bryant among them)
As if we needed another reminder of just how cruel and unjust the year 2020 has been, Boseman’s exit was both that reminder and its own exclamation point.
There’s an old Chinese proverb that goes, “the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” No truer statement could be made about Chad Boseman, whose short life and career were full of stellar moments that would be the envy of most actors. In just the past seven years alone, his stints as Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in Get on Up, Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, and King T’Challa in Black Panther were not only Oscar-worthy, but awe-inspiring. Seemingly out of nowhere, Boseman’s Black Panther helped elevate the Marvel Studios Avengers series to its highest of heights, with his titular movie and the two that followed, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, all of which featured Boseman’s Wakanda-ruling character, accounting for three of the five highest-grossing films of all time in the U.S. and Canada.
It was as if no role was too big for Boseman to conquer and, conversely, Boseman would settle for no less than a landmark role, particularly during the last years of his life.
It should be no surprise then that Boseman’s last feature part, as the lead male character named Levee in the soon-to-be-released Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, will continue that standard. As unassuming as the film’s title may sound, its connections to black artistic greatness are no less powerful than the other movies involving Boseman.
Consider that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an adaptation of a play by August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, African-American playwright who himself is a hero in his field. In November 2005, just a month after his passing, Wilson became the first African-American to have a Broadway theater named after him (the August Wilson Theatre at 245 West 52nd Street in Manhattan).
The movie’s co-producer is none other than fellow actor and legend Denzel Washington, who has exclusive rights to produce film adaptations of all ten of August Wilson’s ten-part “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of plays that explored the African-American experience in 20th Century America. Each of the ten films takes part in a different decade during the 1900s, with all but one taking place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where Wilson grew up.
The lone Pittsburgh exception is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson’s fictionalized accounting of real-life blues legend Ma Rainey and a night in Chicago during the recording of her song “Black Bottom.” It was the first play for which August won any award when he received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play in 1985.
As for Ma Rainey, she was one of the first female blues singers who popularized the genre in the early 20th century. She is among the first six women – all Black – to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She is also in the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame (the latter for the song “See See Rider Blues”).
Ma Rainey will be played by stellar actress Viola Davis. Recall that Davis played opposite Denzel Washington in another August Wilson adaptation – the film Fences – another in that ten-part “Pittsburgh Cycle” for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first black thespian to win the triple crown of acting awards (she won Tony and Emmy awards for acting before that).
Boseman will be playing Levee, the trumpeter in Ma Rainey’s band whose restlessness during a claustrophobic rehearsal session for the song “Black Bottom” (a song named after a popular African-American dance at the time) stirs tensions among band members and sets off a chain of events that will change all their lives.
That plot may seem inconsequential to some – especially when compared to the extraordinary movie roles Boseman took on before this one – but the film’s place in Boseman’s legacy will be no less significant, especially when considering the greatness surrounding it.
Think about it, you have August Wilson, legendary groundbreaking Black playwright whose story lays the foundation; Denzel Washington, the only Black man to win two Oscars and whose last August Wilson adaptation was nominated for Best Picture; and Viola Davis, the first Black thespian to win the triple crown of acting awards.
All of this is wrapped around “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey and the events surrounding the recording of one of her many hits during the roaring 1920s – a song called “Black Bottom” about a dance created by African Americans that overtook the Charleston as the most popular dance of an era.
So who better than Boseman to take on the role of musician and agitator in a film depicting the exploits of Black life in 1920s Chicago? And to do so nearly a century later in 2020 – during one of the most tumultuous years in Chicago’s and America’s recent history – couldn’t be more poignant.
In the immediate wake of Boseman’s passing, his peers in the acting world and beyond have been pouring out tributes. Washington, who once paid to send Chadwick to acting classes at Oxford University in England, called the late actor a “gentle soul” and a “brilliant actor.”
Sadly, Chadwick Boseman won’t be here to see the fruits of his labor as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom but, God willing, we will. We will be able to witness his rendering of yet another uniquely Black American experience as only he could deliver it. And, like the other films bearing his name in their credits, it will be a must-see for all, Black or otherwise.
Rest in power, Chadwick Boseman. Like a supernova, you are gone too soon and will surely be missed. But your legacy will live on in film and in our hearts forever.
DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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