Chadwick Boseman And The Weight Of The Final Role

by Zeba Blay | reprint from Huffington Post

In his final movie performance, Chadwick Boseman plays a desperate man. Levee, a horn player in blues queen Ma Rainey’s band, is young, volatile, explosive and constantly striving to get more out of life than what’s been dealt to him. Over the course of an afternoon, as he and the band congregate in a music studio to work on Ma’s latest record, Levee’s outward bravado and inner pain eventually result in a tragic but not altogether surprising climax.

Based on the August Wilson play and directed by veteran theater and film director George C. Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is not a definitively cinematic movie. That is, it’s very much a movie based on a play, and what it lacks in sweeping visual storytelling and movement it makes up for entirely with character. This is a movie about monologues. This is a movie about performance. And while in some ways this creates a kind of weakness in the film, it’s incredibly fitting as Boseman’s final on-screen role, because all you can think about anyway is the weight and meaning and finality of his performance.

Every glance, every grimace, every boisterous laugh, every tear, every wisecrack that Levee makes takes on a new significance. Certain lines feel eerie and momentous simply because he is saying them, like when Levee, arguing with the other boys in the band, declares: “Death, death got some style. Death will kick your ass and make you wish you never been born. That’s how bad death is. But you can rule over life. Life ain’t nothing.”

This is not a distraction. If anything, Boseman’s performance, playing off of Viola Davis, invigorates the film with an energy and an urgency that keeps us engaged. As an actor, that was perhaps one of Boseman’s greatest talents: Whether playing the lead role in films like “Black Panther” and “Get on Up” or as part of ensemble, as in one of his other final roles in “Da 5 Bloods,” he was always a grounding force, a star who shined while letting others shine, as well.

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