Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
From the moment he bursts onto the screen in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Chadwick Boseman disappears. He is Levee, a 32-year-old trumpet player who has tremendous talent and unspeakable trauma, at war with the world and himself. At first Levee is joyful, dancing in the new shoes he bought after winning a craps game, but within minutes we see the full gamut of his humanity, as his bandmates’ playful teasing becomes kindling on the embers of Levee’s suffering, just waiting to erupt into flame.
Levee sings a specific Black American melody under white supremacy. Yes, there is pain so heavy it has no choice but to unload itself onto each successive generation, but that is not the only inheritance: There is also innovation and power and unspeakable joy. When these endowments combine with rhythm and ingenuity, it births the music that Ma Rainey and Levee create, which is then weaponized, exploited and appropriated by white businessmen. That’s the blues, and Boseman takes it all on and delivers it back to us in the performance of a lifetime.
The tragedy is that this was Boseman’s performance of a lifetime; his last on-screen role was a culmination of Boseman’s 17-year screen career. From his first role on All My Children onward, Boseman fought to portray Black people and Black boys and men specifically in their fullness. Levee is full, not just because of the power of iconic playwright August Wilson’s source material, but because Boseman stepped into his yellow shoes and danced.
That he danced while privately dealing with colon cancer during filming is an almost unbearable achievement in craft. When Levee screams at God, pocketknife bared, over God’s seeming lack of interest in his plight, one can only imagine what emotions Boseman pulled from to elevate Levee off of the screen. What we know for sure is how intentional he was with his time and his gift: He chose to work through disability and chronic pain to give us this career-defining performance in an industry that is no friend to the disabled and chronically ill. Levee may be the final chapter in Boseman’s onscreen legacy, but there is comfort in knowing that the work he’s done speaks, in and out of time. Every time we listen, he lives again.
— Brooke Obie