Chadwick Boseman's Oscar hype has nothing to do with pity
There is nothing inherently extraordinary about watching a dead person act. We do it all the time: It's as simple as throwing on an old James Bond or Harry Potter movie, or a silent film. The camera functions as a fountain of youth; actors are immortalized by the shadows they leave on theater walls, and the pixels they light up on our TVs.
But watching Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom — his final film before he died in August at age 43 after a secret battle with colon cancer — is different, because it is extraordinary. Already there is justified talk of the actor being a shoo-in for an Oscar. Only, don't let it be talk tainted by sentimentality, or some misguided notion of "honoring his legacy," or atoning for the fact that he was never nominated during his lifetime. Boseman deserves the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for the simple reason that this year, that's exactly who he was.
As the story goes, Boseman didn't initially plan to be an actor. He had studied directing at Howard University, and earned early praise for his "sophisticated" playwriting. "I really only started acting because I wanted to know what the actors were doing, how to communicate with the actors," Boseman once told New York's Power 105.1. "And then I realized I'm supposed to do all of it." His breakout role came in 2013, when he played Jackie Robinson in 42, although it was his portrayal of the Black Panther superhero in the Marvel films that made him a household name. Still, while it's impossible to imagine anyone else as King T'Challa — so much so that Marvel Studios says they won't recast him in the Black Panther sequel — his death is deeply tragic in part because the imagination runs wild thinking of the other characters he might have one day played.
This year represented a taste of that potential. Though Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, out Friday on Netflix, is the performance that will likely get Boseman nominated for a leading role, it might not be his only posthumous nomination come March. Boseman could also earn a supporting actor nomination for Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods, in which he plays a character who died in the Vietnam War and is mainly seen in flashbacks. Though it's a relatively small part in what is probably the ensemble film of the year, a single "shot of him just shooting the s--t with an Afro pick rising up from the back of his head carries enough unapologetic Blackness to power a nuclear reactor of revolution," Odie Henderson wrote at the time for RogerEbert.com. We now know Boseman was deep into his battle with cancer when he was on set, too, making the performance all the more transcendent to watch now.
But you don't — or at least shouldn't — win the Oscar for the circumstances surrounding your performance. And Academy voters haven't always been moved by tragic deaths: James Dean died in a car crash at 24 and became the first person to be posthumously nominated for an Oscar for his roles in East of Eden, and, the following year, for Giant — and lost both times. To date, Peter Finch, who played Howard Beale in Network, and Heath Ledger remain the only actors to have won a posthumous Oscar for acting, Ledger winning after he died of a drug overdose prior to the release of The Dark Knight. "Mr. Ledger's death created a reservoir of sympathy and an opportunity for tribute from his colleagues," The New York Times wrote, and while it's true, such observations have led to years of fights in comment sections about whether he really deserved the award, or if he was merely given the Oscar out of pity. "Would Heath Ledger Win If He Were Alive?" Vanity Fair even asked at one point, and while their conclusion was still "yes," the award is somewhat tarnished by the question being posed at all.
When it comes to Boseman in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, though, there should be no doubt of his worthiness. In it, he plays Levee, an ambitious young coronet player who rubs the veteran musicians in Ma Rainey's backing band the wrong way. At first, he seems like a swaggering, brash disturbance — only for the movie to snap into focus around his two major monologues. I don't think I drew a breath during either while he was speaking: His performance is incandescent, almost Shakespearean. It is the work of the rare actor who can somehow give the big screen the intimacy of a stage performance. Viola Davis might be the one with the "triple crown of acting," but even her (great!) performance as the movie's title character doesn't hold a candle to Boseman's by the end. It's not that he steals the show — he's too good an actor to actually upstage his colleagues — but he centers himself as the narrative's beating, aching, and rightful heart.
Watching Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is extraordinary, not just because it feels like a gift — one last performance from Boseman, and his best yet — but because it feels like a eulogy, too. The movie itself, as directed by George C. Wolfe and adapted from the play of the same name by August Wilson, is a strange and mournful little number, not in and of itself particularly remarkable on its own. But what resonates is the absence you know comes after the credits, that sense of this is it.
After all, a movie gives actors immortality the way a sly genie might: A filmography doesn't actually bottle up a late actor's life, but only a few moments of it. All Ma Rainey's Black Bottom represents of Boseman is a culmination of the right takes on the right days. But as Ma Rainey puts it herself at one point, "if you're gonna tell it, tell it right."
Chadwick Boseman told it right.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Peter Finch did not win the Best Actor award for his role in Network. We regret the error.