The band room where much of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom unfolds was designed to look like a boxing ring, a place August Wilson’s dialogue could really cut and blow. It was in this space that Chadwick Boseman transformed into Levee, a hotheaded cornet player who was always ready to fight.
In the film, based on Wilson’s 1982 play, the titular blues star’s band members—Levee, Cutler, Slow Drag, and Toledo—hang around the room during a daylong recording session, trading barbs that oscillate between playful and lethal. Many of the production’s hardest scenes are set there and, in a twist of scheduling fate, were shot during the final week of filming. For Boseman, this meant tackling a series of increasingly difficult moments—from Levee’s emotional five-minute monologue about his traumatic childhood to his outburst at God.
Neither director George C. Wolfe nor Boseman’s castmates knew it, but the actor was also deep into a four-year battle with colon cancer. After big scenes, he’d retreat to a nearby stairwell. “He would go over on those steps and literally collapse to rest his energy,” Wolfe says. He would approach his star there to give him notes; at other points during filming, Boseman’s team—including his future wife, Simone Ledward, and his hair and makeup artists—would pray and meditate over him. But when it was time to shoot his scenes, Boseman sprang into action.
“There was nothing that existed in Chadwick’s performance—or being, or anything—that caused me to have any degree of concern,” says Wolfe. “He would dive fully into the work, and the note that I had discussed was fully calibrated into his choices.”
Boseman was always ready to go back into the ring.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom arrived on Netflix in December, nearly four months after Boseman’s death on August 28, 2020, at the age of 43. Thanks to his turn as Levee—a poignant, striking performance perfectly tuned for heartbreak—Boseman has become an Oscar front-runner, a bittersweet, posthumous bookend to his onscreen career. An Academy Award nomination would be his first and, tragically, last.
Up until his death, the star had kept his illness a secret from most of his artistic collaborators as well as the public. The world mourned, doubly shocked by the knowledge of his private suffering. How did he manage? How did we not know? “I had no idea that he was greatly ill,” says Denzel Washington, who produced the film. “He wouldn’t stay around on the set a lot. Now I know why, because he had to go back to his trailer and regain his strength.” Says Wolfe, “He was thinner, but he lived in L.A., so I thought he was fasting or something.” Again, what continually struck the director was “the energy of the commitment and the emotional nakedness and the ferocity of how he was eating the role.”
Though he had been acting for years, Boseman’s career didn’t explode until his mid-30s. Suddenly, he went from unknown to the industry’s go-to star for biopics of African American icons, playing Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in Get On Up, and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall in the span of just four years. At the same time, he was cast as the superhero Black Panther, first in Captain America: Civil War and then in an eponymous stand-alone film. Black Panther became a billion-dollar pop phenomenon and one of Marvel’s biggest hits.
Boseman wrapped himself in history and symbolism, and was talented enough to carry the weight of both. His artistic manifesto, he declared in a 2019 interview, was simple: “How do I break a barrier with this role? What can I bring to the table that’s different?… As an African American artist, and filmmaker, actor, that’s my goal literally every time.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is something of an urtext for that manifesto. As a young theater student at Howard University, Boseman often carried a Bible and an August Wilson play in his satchel. He’d been preparing all his life for a project like this. “It felt like a full-circle moment for him,” says Logan Coles, Boseman’s close friend and writing and producing partner, who met the actor when they were in college. “That text was part of our training ground.”
At the height of her fame, the real-life Ma Rainey was a rare example of a Black artist who had creative autonomy and found dazzling success with her liberating records. Levee was Wilson’s stand-in for Black artists whose experience was the polar opposite, a tragic figure whose talent is obstructed and exploited.
Viola Davis may play the lively, assertive title character, but Boseman’s Levee is Ma Rainey’s true lead. The first time we see him, he’s striding to the front of a stage and delivering a swaggering solo that seduces the spotlight away from the singer. The next time he appears, he’s on a busy Chicago street, a cigarette dangling between his lips and a half smile deepening his crescent-moon cheekbones. Levee marvels at the women walking by, then at a pair of canary yellow shoes in a shop window. He buys the shoes and obsesses over them, viewing them as symbols of his future success.
And life could have been like that for Levee, filled with beautiful people and beautiful things. But Wilson writes him a much grimmer path, one that finds the cornet player breaking down, frustrated that neither Rainey nor his bandmates take his musical suggestions seriously and that his path forward as an artist is continually blocked. Boseman gives himself over completely to the role, imbuing Levee with equal parts vibrancy and anguish. It is the most wrenching and exquisite performance of his career.
“Chadwick played a character that is probably the greatest role written for a young Black actor ever in history,” says Davis. “Levee is a complete character that is driven by trauma. For me, he represents every Black man at that time, and at this time, driven by trauma that he doesn’t know what to do with, and has dreams and talent that he doesn’t know how to harness. You hope that people get that.”
Washington remembers how it felt to see Charles S. Dutton play Levee in the play’s original Broadway run. “I was like, Ah, this is a funny, jolly guy,” he says. “Then he turns in that one scene and you go, Oh man—I never saw it coming.” Washington, who’s currently working to shepherd all of Wilson’s great works to the big screen (the first being the 2016 Oscar-winning adaptation of Fences, which he directed and starred in), hoped Wolfe could replicate that sensation for Ma Rainey newcomers by casting someone similarly disarming.
Boseman, a bankable star whose roles often bent toward heroism, was the dream fit. “It’s very important to me that you fall in love with Levee, in all his arrogance and foolishness,” says Wolfe. “You are so caught up in who he is as a human being that when tragedy befalls him, it hurts you deeply. That was crucially important, that it be someone who was easy to love, easy to enjoy and to celebrate. And that seemed to be Chadwick perfectly.”
Production began in Pittsburgh, Wilson’s hometown, last summer, after an intense two-week rehearsal period. Boseman, along with the film’s tremendous cast—Davis, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts, Taylour Paige, and Dusan Brown—worked through scenes over and over. Wilson’s play, adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, is lengthy and exacting, with some scenes lasting upward of 20 pages. “It was very crucial that all the actors were inside of the language,” Wolfe says.
As Levee, Boseman added a rasp to his voice and loosened his syllables into a period-appropriate Mississippi drawl. To get into character, he peppered the pages of his script with highly specific annotations—noting the year Levee was born, creating motivations for both his character and others. In a scene where Levee mocks Toledo by derisively playing errant notes on his cornet, Boseman gives each note its own goal: “to annoy,” “to amuse,” and “to drown out.” He learned to play the instrument by memorizing a finger chart sent to him by composer Branford Marsalis, and his ability to understand what he was playing “made a huge difference” in the performance, Marsalis says.