On December 18, Chadwick Boseman will take his final onscreen bow. The late actor, who died in August at age 43 following a four-year battle with colon cancer, plays the trumpeter Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The project is based on the 1984 August Wilson play of the same name and will premiere on Netflix, right in time for awards season.
The movie, directed by George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Broadway’s original Angels in America) and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, stars Viola Davis as the “Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey. Set in 1920s Chicago, Rainey struggles to achieve equality and manifest her own artistic vision while surrounded by a white management team and an overly eager bandmate, played by Boseman. “Working with Chadwick on Ma Rainey was a glorious experience. Every day we all got to witness the ferocity of his talent and the gentleness of his heart. A truly blessed, loving, gifted and giving human being,” Wolfe said in a statement to Variety.
Ahead, everything we know about the film and why his performance is getting Oscar buzz.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will be released this December.
The movie explores the blues scene of the 1920s and will be released to Netflix on December 18. A synopsis of the film reads:
Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians await trailblazing performer, the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Davis). Late to the session, the fearless, fiery Ma engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music. As the band waits in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious trumpeter Levee (Boseman)—who has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend (Paige) and is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry—spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives.
It was filmed in Pittsburgh in 2019.
According to the New York Times, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was shot in Pittsburgh last summer in order to accommodate Davis’s How to Get Away With Murder filming schedule. Davis recalled having no inclination that Boseman was facing a private health battle while working together. “I’m looking back at how tired he always seemed,” she told the Times. “I look at his beautiful, unbelievable team that was meditating over him and massaging him, and I now realize everything they were trying to infuse in him to keep him going and working at his optimal level. And he received it.”
Even though Boseman is best known for playing superhero T’Challa in 2018’s Black Panther, Davis said there were no signs of self-importance from him on set. “An actor of Chadwick’s status usually comes on and it’s their ego who comes on before them: This is what they want, this is what they’re not going to do. That was absolutely, 150 percent off the table with Chadwick,” she remembered. “He could completely discard whatever ego he had, whatever vanity he had, and welcome Levee in.”
Netflix will campaign Boseman as Lead Actor for the 2021 Oscars.
As awards season approaches, Variety reports that Netflix will campaign for Boseman to be considered in the Lead Actor category for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The streamer will put Viola Davis forth for Lead Actress, while the rest of the cast will go for the Supporting categories. The outlet notes that 1985’s The Color Purple is the only film to get more than two acting nominations for Black performers at the Oscars. Boseman will also be put forth in the Best Supporting Actor race for Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, also released on Netflix this year, per Variety.
Watching Boseman’s last role will likely be an emotional experience for viewers, but Davis told the Times that Levee’s journey represents a near-universal experience for Black men in America. “I think a lot of times, people look at someone’s life backwards,” she explained. “Now we have the unfortunate knowledge that Chadwick succumbed to cancer at 43, but really, Levee represents so many Black men living in America. What we’re constantly navigating on a day-to-day basis is the trauma of our past—we’re trying to heal from it, we’re even trying to understand that it’s there, and we’re negotiating that with our dreams and who we want to become.”
She added, “Now we know that the role mirrors Chadwick’s life, but if that were omitted, it still mirrors his life in a way,” Davis said. “Because it mirrors the life of every Black person grieving, and especially the life of a Black man.”
A talented ensemble cast co-stars alongside Boseman and Davis.
The movie co-stars Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts, Jonny Coyne, Taylour Paige, Jeremy Shamos, Dusan Brown, and Joshua Harto. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is executive produced by Constanza Romero, with Todd Black, Dany Wolf, and Denzel Washington as producers. The film’s creative team includes Tobias Schliessler as director of photography, Mark Ricker as production designer, Ann Roth as costume designer, Andrew Mondshein as editor, and Branford Marsalis as composer.
Washington, who famously paid for part of Boseman’s college tuition, told the Times he still struggles to accept the actor’s passing. “He did a brilliant job, and he’s gone,” Washington said of Boseman’s performance. “I still can’t believe it.”
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