How Chadwick Boseman's Final Film Marks a Full Circle Moment for the Late Actor

Chadwick Bosemana
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The significance of 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,' arriving on Netflix later this year.

No small tragedy of Chadwick Boseman's death is the limitless potential cut short. In his 43 years, the actor created a body of work that was as lauded as it was culture-defining, with performances as Jackie Robinson and T'Challa proving there was seemingly little he couldn't do. He planned to show more, too, in future Black Panther outings and beyond.

Boseman died on Aug. 28 of colon cancer. His final film is Netflix's upcoming Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, an adaptation of August Wilson's acclaimed 1982 play which co-stars Viola Davis, Glynn Turman and Colman Domingo.

"We created something beautiful together. His last film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," Domingo wrote on Instagram. "The film wrestles with God. We wrestled with August Wilson's text. We wrestled with music. We wrestled with faith. We shared such a loving brotherhood since the first time we did a reading together many moons ago at New York Stage and Film."

Part of Wilson's acclaimed The Pittsburgh Cycle -- 10 plays exploring what it meant to be Black in the 20th century -- Ma Rainey is set in 1920s Chicago and sees a band waiting for the titular singer to arrive at the studio to record. Boseman plays ambitious trumpeter Levee, previously portrayed in both 1984's original Broadway cast and the 2003 Broadway revival by Charles S. Dutton.

The movie, which was helmed by Tony Award-winning stage director George C. Wolfe (Angels in America) from a script by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, completed filming in August 2019. As the statement pronouncing Boseman's death noted, it was one of many projects shot "during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy."

"I always thought he was such a shy, cool, kinda strange intellectual brother," said Domingo of their time working together. "Knowing him on the journey of Ma was a true gift. I will miss him and honor his incredible legacy that he built in 43 years."

The film is, in many ways, a reflection of that legacy. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is not exactly a biopic, though Ma Rainey is very much a real person revered as the Mother of the Blues. The story is Wilson's own, but it nonetheless highlights the humanity of an exceptional Black figure in history, something Boseman himself had become known for having portrayed the likes of Jackie Robinson and James Brown. (His Levee, it's worth noting, is fictitious.)

Davis, who stars as Ma Rainey, saw the actor breathe life into the larger than life firsthand in Get on Up, in which Boseman played soul singer James Brown and Davis played his mother. "No words to express my devastation of losing you. Your talent, your spirit, your heart, your authenticity," Davis tweeted upon Boseman's death. "It was an honor working beside you."

It's his work in Ma Rainey that is expected to launch Boseman as an awards contender when it premieres later this year. After any number of worthy performances, that he could be in contention for his first Oscar with a movie about Black artists refusing to let society's prejudice dictate their worth feels kismet. It's what he embodied in all of the icons he played onscreen but also what he did in his own career, breaking the mold of the modern-day superhero -- and making history doing so.

For Boseman personally, his final film provided a full-circle moment with producer Denzel Washington. (This is the latter's second time producing an adaptation of Wilson's work, following 2016's Fences.) When Boseman was still a student at Howard University, he was presented with the opportunity to attend a summer program at the British Academy of Dramatic Acting in Oxford, England, but was unable to cover the cost. His professor, Phylicia Rashad, reached out to her circle of friends to ask if they would sponsor her student. Washington agreed and ended up paying Boseman's way.

Boseman opened up about how Washington paid it forward while introducing the actor as AFI's Lifetime Achievement Award honoree in 2019. "I know personally that your generosity extends past what you have given on the stage and screen," he said. "Imagine receiving the letter that your tuition for that summer was paid for and that your benefactor was none other than the dopest actor on the planet."

Until the year prior, Boseman had kept that connection a secret. He wanted to meet Washington in person before speaking about it publicly, but he also didn't want his gratitude to be misconstrued. While doing press for Black Panther in 2018, he thought to himself, "I think I've made it to the point where I'm not trying to get something from him saying it."

With Ma Rainey, the two men's interconnected Hollywood journeys came together at last. What began as an act of kindness -- Washington believing in young, unproven Black talent -- helped open a door for Boseman, who worked his way up through the industry and became a true movie star on his own merits, until they found themselves working together as equals.

"He was a gentle soul and a brilliant artist, who will stay with us for eternity through his iconic performances over his short yet illustrious career," Washington said in a statement this week. "God bless Chadwick Boseman."