Movies

Boseman tipped for Oscar glory with Ma Rainey swansong

Los Angeles – Four months after his death shocked the world, trailblazing US actor Chadwick Boseman makes his heartbreaking, hotly Oscar-tipped final film appearance in 1920s blues drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

The Black Panther star portrays feisty, irreverent and ambitious trumper Levee who's struggling to make himself heard in a Chicago music world riddled with racism and exploitation, in the August Wilson play adaptation that premieres on Netflix on Dec 18.

Boseman’s role as the piece’s tragic hero takes on added poignancy by his death at age 43 this August from colon cancer – a diagnosis he never publicly discussed, or even shared with his co-stars during production.

Viola Davis, who plays the real-life titular “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, has described Boseman’s role as “one of the greatest – if not the greatest – role for an African-American actor in history”, distilling the historic trauma of the Black experience.

“I’m looking back at how tired he always seemed,” she told The New York Times about the film shot last year.

“Now we know that the role mirrors Chadwick’s life... it mirrors the life of every Black person grieving, and especially the life of a Black man,” she added.

Boseman had secretly battled through his cancer diagnosis to become the first Black star with his own superhero epic in the record-breaking Marvel franchise.

In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Levee is hired to support Ma Rainey, who has travelled from the Deep South to record her hit songs on a sweltering summer afternoon in a cramped back-alley studio.

As the diva battles duplicitous producers who want to cash in on her voice and send her packing, Levee plots his own path to solo musical glory while revealing a childhood ravaged by white brutality.

In a bravura performance, Boseman delivers searing monologues that vow to “make the white man respect me” and curse a God who “hates your Black ass” – interspersed with moments of impish charisma, foot-shuffling dance moves and outrageous flirting.

Ma Rainey is the second of Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle to be adapted by producer-actor Denzel Washington, with each chronicling the African-American experience in a different 20th-century decade.

In a quirk of fate, Washington once funded the studies of a group of young Black US actors attending a prestigious British summer drama programme – including a then-unknown Boseman.

“I’m happy that I got to be a part of sharing his genius with the world,” said Washington in the film’s production notes.

“I miss him and I love him. On film we’ll always have him and I’ll never forget him.” 

For Boseman, that course in Oxford was a seminal opportunity to study Shakespeare, Beckett and Pinter – but also fostered a desire to propel the works of Black playwrights into the same canon.

“I always felt like black writers were just as classical,” he once told Rolling Stone. 

“It’s just as difficult to do August Wilson, and the stories he’s telling are just as epic.”

Academy voters may have begun to take note, awarding Davis an Oscar for Washington’s previous Wilson adaptation Fences (2016).

As Ma Rainey – who in real life was supported by a young Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith – Davis dons gold teeth and a fat suit as she sashays her hips, croons country blues and pours prima-donna scorn on those around her. She is also being tipped for a repeat Oscar bid.

But director George C. Wolfe have little doubt over Boseman’s credentials to become the third posthumous acting Oscar winner, after Heath Ledger and Peter Finch.

He said: “Chadwick put his entire being into Levee... Levee demands that because of the Herculean scale of the role. He put every ounce of his heart and passion into it.” - AFP

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