There’s a scant history of posthumous Oscar winners, but Chadwick Boseman’s performance in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a shoo-in for a nomination—and could possibly clinch a win on the power of one scene alone.
Adapted from August Wilson’s 1984 play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom stars Boseman as Levee, a hot-tempered trumpet player in legendary blues singer Ma Rainey’s band. A recording session is fraught with mounting friction as Levee’s volatility leads to a devastating incident.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom marks Boseman’s final onscreen performance since he passed away from colon cancer in August. Watching his frenetic and searing portrait of a deeply troubled musician serves as a heartbreaking reminder of the magnitude of talent cinema lost.
While Boseman is magnetic throughout the film, there’s one monologue in particular that’s practically gilded with Oscar gold.
After Levee shows an exuberant amount of deference to the white recording studio owner, Levee’s bandmates playfully rib him on how he talks a big game but is “spooked” by the white man. As playful as they were with their jokes, Levee’s temperament rapidly darkens before exploding into a heart-wrenching story explaining his tortured relationship with white men. When he was just eight years old, a gang of white men broke into his home and raped his mother in the kitchen. What followed was a slow-burn revenge plot his father carried out against the perpetrators that brought some justice for the crimes but ultimately ended in his murder.
Boseman masterfully carries the scene with an intensity of barely contained rage, which is only magnified by the fact that it’s a five-minute monologue with little editing.
But, as screenwriter Ruben Santiago-Hudson explains, that scene almost turned out differently.
“I wanted to keep it simple and just deal with Levee and his eyes and the eyes of the other men,” Santiago-Hudson says.
However, he received notes to add more elements to the scene to break up the long shots.
“They felt that in movies, you don’t just sit on one character for three pages,” he says.
He tried to incorporate more people in the scene or even just hands performing various actions relating to Levee’s story as sort of an abstract way to add more beats to the scene. But in the end, Santiago-Hudson pressed for his original idea to keep it as simple as possible, and that’s what made the final cut.
“I said, Trust it: the actor can do it. August’s words can do it. [Director George C. Wolfe’s] direction can do it,” Santiago-Hudson says. “I’m directing when I’m writing. I don’t tell George, ‘You gotta use this camera or that lens.’ But I’ll say, ‘The camera begins to slowly creep in on Levee’s eyes. Occasionally we’ll cut back to the other characters. You see how they’re absorbing the story. His rage grows. His eyes intensify.'”
The most recent actor to earn an Oscar after his passing was Heath Ledger, who won as best supporting actor in 2008 for The Dark Knight. Boseman, who was undergoing surgeries and/or chemotherapy during filming, is equally deserving of the honor.
“There was a transcendence about Chad’s performance, but there needed to be,” said Viola Davis in an interview with The New York Times. “This is a man who’s raging at God, who’s lost even his faith. So [Boseman has] got to sort of go to the edge of hope and death and life in order to make that character work. Of course, you look back on it and see that that’s where he was.”