Chadwick Boseman's rise to stardom coincided with the progress of the colon cancer that killed him last August at the age of 43. It is unbearable now to think of Black Panther and Boseman's heroic performance as T'Challa, because we realize that he knew he was ill when he made the film. That he kept the secret of his illness and continued to work, in a series of extraordinary performances, gives a whole new meaning to the concept of heroism.
Boseman's last two films, both on Netflix, would have been magnificent achievements under any circumstances. His illness and premature death give those performances a poignancy that their makers could never have planned for. Nevertheless, Boseman's presence works to increase the already overwhelming potency of both films.
George C. Wolfe's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, featuring Ruben Santiago-Hudson's adaptation of August Wilson's play, contains what is probably the greatest performance of Boseman's career, playing one of the greatest characters Wilson ever created.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in 1927 Chicago; Wolfe and Santiago-Hudson begin the story with a preamble set in the Deep South, presenting one of Ma Rainey's concerts in raunchy, glowing detail. The preamble also demonstrates the strained relationship between Levee (Boseman), a gifted and ambitious trumpeter in Rainey's band, and Rainey (Viola Davis), who deeply resents his trying to steal her spotlight.
This sets up the main action, which depicts a recording session for Rainey and her band. Rainey makes it plain she has no desire to be at the session, where the white recording executives Irvin (Jeremy Stamos) and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) are in charge. She makes life as difficult as possible for Irvin and Sturdyvant, arriving late for the session and making peremptory demands. One of them is that her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) must do the spoken-word introduction for her signature song, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," even though Sylvester has a severe stutter.
Rainey's demand to use Sylvester has the added purpose of humbling Levee, who has written a trumpet introduction to the song. It is apparent that Rainey isn't the only one who has trouble with Levee. Cocky, loudmouthed, as showy as his two-tone shoes, Levee feels superior to everyone in sight and isn't shy about saying so. Trombonist-bandleader Cutler (Colman Domingo) constantly butts heads with Levee, while philosophical pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and laconic bassist Slow Hand (Michael Potts) try to stay out of the conflict.
It also becomes apparent that Levee's arrogance is his defense against the horrors of living in a racist society. He feels utterly alone, deserted by God and people alike. He expresses this toward the film's middle, in its most riveting set piece and one of the greatest monologues Wilson ever wrote, about the rape of his mother and lynching of his father.
Part of Levee's armor is his assurance that life has taught him how to handle white people. That mistake leads to the story's final tragedy and its bitterly ironic last scene.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is resplendent in every respect, with credit due to cinematographer Tobias Schiessler, costume designer Ann Roth, production designer Mark Ricker, and especially composer-arranger Branford Marsalis, who ensures the rock-solid authenticity of the music. The cast is faultless, but Boseman and Davis tower over the film. Although Boseman and Davis share few scenes, the battle of wills between Levee and Rainey, played out in and dictated by a society that oppresses them both, is the center of the story. Just by looking at them, we see it's an unequal battle. Levee is thin almost to emaciation; the pumped-up physique of T'Challa is gone. Knowing what we do of Boseman's fate, it makes us sad to see him this way, but it also works to increase our sympathy for Levee. Davis' Rainey, a vision in gaudy feathers and silks, is conversely the image
of brazen health and stern command. They have different methods of confronting white supremacy, but Rainey's is the one that works. Levee thinks talent is enough; Rainey knows better.
Boseman has only a small role, but a crucial one, in Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee's political adventure-thriller. Boseman plays Stormin' Norman, a character seen only in flashbacks and fantasy sequences. He is the leader of an all-Black squad in Vietnam whose members find a cache of CIA gold in a downed plane. Norman is killed in action shortly after the discovery. Decades later, his comrades—Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.)—return to Vietnam. Their stated purpose is to find Norman's remains and return them to his family; their main purpose is to find the gold.
Soon a fifth person shows up to join the expedition—Paul's son David (Jonathan Majors). Paul is less than happy to see David, and his suspicion rubs off on the others. Meanwhile, Otis reconnects with old flame Tien Luu (Le Y Lan) who puts him in touch with Desroches (Jean Reno), a shady French businessman who says he can smuggle the gold out of Vietnam without any unwanted attention from Customs officials.
As is typical of a Spike Lee joint, there is so much going on in the screenplay—written by Lee with Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and Kevin Willmott—that it is difficult to do justice to the story in an average-sized review. I can start by saying Lee quotes from many classic movies, two in particular—Apocalypse Now (the trip down the Mekong into Vietnam's interior) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (the search for gold and a pointed paraphrase of Sierra Madre's most famous line). But that only scratches the surface of Da 5 Bloods, which is a sweeping condemnation of the Vietnam War in general and the exploitation of African-American soldiers in particular.
Lee begins Da 5 Bloods with Muhammad Ali's public refusal to serve in Vietnam and ends with Martin Luther King's speech denouncing the war—given, Lee reminds us, exactly one year to the day before his assassination. If you are not inclined to Lee's viewpoint, Da 5 Bloods is probably not for you. But Lee—who can match Michael Moore for fiery advocacy any day of the week—makes an emotionally persuasive case. He informs us about heroes such as Milton Olive III, an 18-year-old Black Congressional Medal of Honor winner who saved his platoon by flinging himself on a live Viet Cong grenade. (Olive's sacrifice has echoes toward the end of the movie.) He tells us, through the story of Otis and Tien Luu, of the illegitimate children American G.I.s left behind in Vietnam. He introduces a trio of activists played by Melanie Thierry, Jasper Paakkonen,
and Paul Walter Hauser to remind us of the continuing threat of land mines in the Vietnamese countryside.
Above all, Lee shows us the mental and emotional damage the war wrought on Black veterans. His choice to cast Lindo, Peters, Lewis, and Whitlock in the flashback scenes, playing their younger selves, emphasizes that point. From the beginning Paul's PTSD is particularly front and center. Lee illuminates Paul's inner turmoil by making him a MAGA-hat-wearing Trumpite (Lee caricatures the former Chief Executive as "President Fake Bone Spurs"). Paul is the 5 Bloods character closest to Humphrey Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs in Sierra Madre, but Paul's madness cannot be reduced to simple greed. Norman—about whose death Paul feels continuous, crippling guilt—is the guiding spirit of Paul's life, the one who insisted that the gold be used for the benefit of all African-Americans. Paul's fevered vision of Norman in the jungle is the emotional and thematic high point of
the film. Lindo's fevered performance is the film's standout, but Boseman provides Lindo with the perfect heroic foil. Our knowledge of Boseman's premature death adds an intense poignancy to the scene.
Denzel Washington helped to pay for Boseman's education, and Boseman should have had the same sort of career as Washington. He had the same sort of presence, the same sort of strength and versatility. As it is, we are forced to consign him to the pantheon of performers who left us far too soon. But we have the performances he left us, and the example of an actor who combined extraordinary talent with indomitable courage.