Essays · Movies

Performer of the Year (2020): Chadwick Boseman

His last two performances, in ‘Da 5 Bloods’ and ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ suggest he was embarking on a remarkable new phase of his career we will tragically never get to see.
Performer Of The Year Chadwick Boseman
By  · Published on December 25th, 2020


This article is part of our 2020 RewindFollow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we bow down to Chadwick Boseman and explain, although it may seem obvious, why he’s our performer of the year for 2020.

Chadwick Boseman was a hero, and he also played one in the movies. Even though colon cancer ended his life at the infuriatingly young age of forty-three this past August, at the risk of sounding incredibly hokey, Boseman will continue to be a hero as people keep watching movies.

We will never again have the privilege, since the December 18th release of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, of seeing a new performance from him, but Boseman’s truly remarkable filmography remains, yet to be discovered by generations of movie watchers to come. Generations who will grow up knowing an unapologetically Black big-budget Hollywood superhero film as a reality, not just something imagined briefly in the ending dream sequence of Hollywood Shuffle.

Could Black Panther have been made without Boseman? Sure. But even for those resistant to magical thinking, there’s a particular synergy to Boseman’s casting as T’Challa, not just because he brought the character to life in a remarkable way, but because it feels like an achievement toward which his entire career had propelled him.

From his first movie role — a small supporting part as Pro Football Hall of Famer Floyd Little in the 2008 film The Express: The Ernie Davis Story — Boseman’s filmography is full of Black heroes in a landscape where stories centering Black heroes are still not exactly the norm.

His first major starring role came in 2013 when he played boundary-breaking baseball icon Jackie Robinson in 42. The following year, he brought James Brown to life on the big screen in Get on Up. In 2017, Thurgood Marshall got the same star treatment in Marshall

Boseman’s filmography is not one acquired through just skill, luck, a good agent, or any combination of these things — of course, all of these components are contributing factors. The point is that it’s a filmography that can only be the result of very conscious, pointed efforts.

In the past few years, as he expanded his influence into the realm of producing, Boseman’s intentionality in his work, and the stories he chose to contribute his remarkable talents to, was only becoming more and more evident.

But the title at the top of this post says “Performer of the Year,” so let’s talk specifically about the two screen performances that proved to be Boseman’s last. His roles as Stormin’ Norman in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and Levee in George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom indicate the start of what could have been a remarkable new phase of an already incredible career. After rising to the top playing heroes, Boseman’s last roles suggest a desire to continue branching out and challenging himself while still maintaining that consistent dedication to amplifying Black voices beyond his own.

In Da 5 Bloods, his mesmerizing screen presence brings the critical role of Stormin’ Norman to life. While a bona fide A-lister by any metric, Boseman was still open to contributing his talents to supporting roles, and the crucial role of Stormin’ Norman is precisely the sort of supporting character that requires someone with leading man star presence. 

He’s the motivation that pushes the surviving members of the all-Black squad of US Army soldiers self-styled as the “Bloods” to return to Vietnam decades after the war, and he’s the ghost that haunts them all. Da 5 Bloods requires Norman’s absence to be a palpable void throughout. He while has relatively little screentime to leave a huge impression, Boseman pulls off these considerable demands with aplomb. He’s the hinge on which the emotional stakes of the film rely, and he pulls it off. 

As the ill-fated trumpeter Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, blessed with considerable musical talents but cursed in the sense that he lacks any of the resources or skills needed to make something of himself, Boseman’s last screen role is also his darkest. A troubled soul shaped by a number of early traumas, Levee is a shell of effervescent charisma loosely wrapped around a fracturing core of long-stewing rage.

As his name suggests, he’s holding back an overflow, but it quickly becomes clear he’s reaching a breaking point, and that it’s not so much a question of if he will self destruct, but when. He flings himself into a door until it breaks open because the American dream mythos tells you that hard work and gumption are supposed to pay off, but he just finds a dead end on the other side instead. 

The soul-crushing experience of having all the odds being stacked against you and not being able to beat them is hardly unique to the Black experience, but it is somewhat emblematic of it. Even looking at those who have defied the odds in creative pursuits, capturing that particular pain is a thread that links a number of the most prominent works in living memory from Black storytellers: Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” A Raisin in the Sun, the Lorraine Hansberry play that takes its name from the poem, a number of August Wilson’s works. It’s a tragic, iconic archetype that Boseman renders fully and heartbreakingly in his portrayal of Levee. In a way, Levee feels like the foil to the odds-defying heroes Boseman made his name playing, and he proves himself to be fully up to the task of playing directly against type. 

Levee is, in many respects, an inherently theatrical role — full of mercurial swings, prone to big speeches — but Boseman manages to hit every note perfectly and keep his performance from ever feeling like something from a taped stage play. He has the mastery of his craft to convey as much through facial expressions and body language in quiet moments as in the most important exchanges dialogue exchanges.

Even the most abrupt shifts in Levee’s mood feel natural and utterly compelling through Boseman’s performance, in the way tension just radiates from his body. In the way he manages to maintain penetrating desperation in his gaze at all times that straddles the line between a pathetic, kicked puppy quality and an untethered mania. He’s a character chock-full of contradictions, and Boseman renders each and every one of them fully — you equally fear him and fear for him all at once. 

The year 2020 gave us two superb performances from Chadwick Boseman and the most tragic reason possible to reflect on his career. He had that ineffable star quality that goes beyond just skill and talent — the ability to fill an IMAX screen and convince you that he belonged there, several stories tall. The sort of performer who commanded attention in a way that seemed effortless. He shared the screen with the most famous names of our time and the flashiest special effects money can buy and never once got overshadowed. He’s our performer of 2020, but also so much more.

In his life and career, Boseman was and continues to be more than just an A-list actor and an icon. In the intentionality of his choices and how he leveraged his star power as he rose through the ranks, the stories to which he chose to contribute his talents, he represents the best of what the film industry can be and do.  He brought Black heroes from the annals of history and the pages of comic books to life, larger than life, in a truly unprecedented way, and he did so in a screen career spanning less than two decades.

While his brilliant last films feel like the start of an exciting career evolution we will tragically never get to see, the performances Chadwick Boseman gave us in the time that he had are delights that we will continue to cherish.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.