The Two Minutes of ‘Ma Rainey’ That Will Win Chadwick Boseman His Oscar
Photo: David Lee/Netflix

The Two Minutes of ‘Ma Rainey’ That Will Win Chadwick Boseman His Oscar

The actor’s unforgettable soliloquy lays bare all the pain and struggle he hid so well in his fight against cancer

When word spread that Boseman’s body had succumbed to cancer, a torrent of questions followed almost immediately. How long had he fought? How long had he known? How had we, the public, never seen his struggle? Never a moment did he falter under the heat of the stage lights. But in his final living performance, as Levee in George Wolfe’s Netflix adaptation of the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Boseman gives us a slice of his melancholy: the anger, the existential questioning, and spiritual conflict of his blues. Where he takes Wilson’s text, where he takes himself, is an act of total immersion. A sinking. A drowning. And the wreckage is worthy of excavation.

Like Boseman himself, Levee’s preternatural charm and smooth smirk self-assuredness sit above what is a quiet, bubbling intensity. After he loses an argument with his boss, blues singer Ma Rainey (a fierce, engrossing performance from Viola Davis), the future that Levee once saw for himself — as an adroit trumpeter and bandleader in 1920s Chicago — starts to fade. That’s when his bandmate Cutler (Colman Domingo) tells him a parable about a reverend who, surrounded by racist White men, is told to dance if he wants to live.

Cutler is a holy fella, his tie pulled closely to his neck, his suspenders holding up a righteous morality; he’s a foil to Levee’s youthful distressed mess. And of the two characters, Cutler is the one who overlaps with Boseman far more — especially their shared religiosity. (When the actor passed, his spiritual mentor, Pastor Samuel Neely, highlighted his labors of godly love: “With him singing in the choir, with him working the youth group, he always was doing something, always helping out, always serving. That was his personality.”)

Cutler’s story is meant to show that regardless of Levee’s ambition, the White man is always gonna be the White man, and the most we can do in this life is be faithful in serving God. But after his own lifetime of swallowing disappointment after disappointment, encountering storm after storm, inheriting this thing called Blackness that holds so much beauty but elicits so much hate, Levee finally breaks.

“What I wants to know,” he starts, “is if he’s a man of God, then where the hell was God when all of this was going on? Why wasn’t God looking out for him? Why didn’t God strike down them crackers with some of this lightning you talking about to me?

“Levee, you gonna burn in hell,” Cutler responds, standing up from the piano bench where he began his story.

Levee knows he hit a nerve. He moves toward Cutler, clamps down even harder, highlighting the theological gulf between them. In a high and dry register, he needles further:

“What I care about burning in hell? You talking like a fool, burning in hell. Why didn’t God strike some of them crackers down? Tell me that! That’s the question! Don’t come telling me this burning in hell shit! He a man of God — why didn’t God strike some of them crackers down? I’ll tell you why! I’ll tell you the truth! It’s sitting out there as plain as day!”

Boseman pauses for a beat. His lips curl back behind teeth, the venom seeps onto his lips in sheen. “Cause he a White man’s god. That’s why,” he sneers, “God ain’t never listened to no nigger’s prayers. God take a nigger’s prayers and throw them in the garbage. God don’t pay niggers no mind. In fact, God hate niggers! Hate them with all the fury in his heart.”

Levee’s eyes widen, revealing their tragic frenzy. He moves with a predatory swiftness, never wanting to leave Cutler’s gaze. His shoulders slumped yet taut, as if waiting for his enemy to make a fatal flaw for a counterpunch. “Jesus don’t love you. Jesus hate yo’ Black ass. Come talking that shit to me” — head shaking in the air as if in disbelief — “talking about burning in hell! God can kiss my ass!”

In comes the first hook. Cutler landing a punch squarely on Levee’s jaw, bullrushing him into the studio wall. Levee is outmatched by Cutler’s size and strength — but when their bandmates separate them, he pulls out a knife and continues his bluesman missive. “I’m gonna give your God a chance to save your Black ass,” Levee says, the prickly rasp of a laugh rumbling out of his chest. “I’m calling Cutler’s God! You hear me, Cutler’s God!?” He’s screaming now, knife in the air, spit and sweat everywhere. “Come on and save this nigger! Strike me down before I cut his throat!”

The real origin of Levee’s rage, as he soon reveals, goes far beyond his disgust for Cutler’s story. Levee harbors the childhood pain of seeing his mother’s assault at the hands of White men. He learned quickly the impotency of Black life, the hurt that can come with feeling weak or vulnerable. And he hates God for doing that to him. “Come on and save him like you did my mama!” he says. “Save him like you did my mama! I heard her when she called you! I heard her when she said, ‘Lord have mercy! Jesus Help me! Please God have mercy on me, Lord!’ And did you turn your back? Did you turn your back, motherfucker?”

By this point, Levee is no longer concerned with stabbing Cutler — he’s turned his energy towards the heavens. “Turn your back on me!” he yells to the sky. “Turn your back on me, motherfucker! I’ll cut your heart out!” Again and again, challenging God until his body shakes, the knife useless in his hands. Eventually, Levee looks around; he knows that this is a bridge that he can no longer cross. He takes his leave.

All of this happens within a span of two minutes. And it’s in those minutes that Chadwick Boseman finally reveals the other side of those quiet years living with a disease that he knew would end him. The other side of the daily blessings he sent to his celebrity circles, joyously tasking them with remembering to embrace their present and breathe.

By all accounts, Boseman was a deeply spiritual man — but as James Cone writes in 1972’s The Spirituals and the Blues, “there is more to be said about the music of Black people than what was revealed in the Black spirituals.” For all of his openness of spirit, something else compelled Chadwick Boseman to keep his struggle under wraps. To make his blues invisible.

“The blues and Truth are one reality of the Black experience” Cone writes later in the book. He wasn’t alone in that; musicians knew it, too. “The blues are that ‘true feeling,’” Henry Townsend once said. The legendary Leadbelly went one step further: “All Negroes like the blues…because they was born with the blues.”

Chadwick’s blues wasn’t the cancer that enveloped his body. It was his understanding of the truth of a world that, faced with his diagnosis, wouldn’t let him live the way he wanted. It was an act of purpose and intent that embraced his blues as a personal intimacy, not to be tainted by Hollywood’s murmurings or pigeonholing. He knew he had to fight the very forces of exploitation, patronizing, and pity-partying that had caused Levee — and Ma Rainey — such great angst in their times. He did it, and he won. But the tragedy in all of this was the fact that he took on this burden alone. “Because he was a caretaker, a leader, a man of faith, dignity and pride, he shielded his collaborators from his suffering,” said Ryan Coogler, the man who made him king.

No matter how strong a soul is, the blues only grows in depth and gravity. And Chadwick Boseman carried his blues. Pain that could fit in the major lines of the palm or rest underneath the tongue’s striations. Like any blues, necessitating a vessel to flood, threatening to capsize. Boseman descended into the hold of his body’s ship armed with homegrown fortitude, faithfully filling up his blues. Every so often, when the waters receded far enough, Boseman would go topside and tell the stories of his people. Our people. The blue people. Jackie and JB and Thurgood. And the other nearby ships running parallel, carrying and depositing their own mix of sweat and pain and runoff, would stop and watch. Take in this bridge of a man, showing us how to be gracious for the trudging.

Chadwick Boseman was thankful for the poetry of the suffering — how it enriched every role with a calm vitality until his dams broke. He was not Levee, but Levee was within him. And in his last performance he finally let us in on his little slice of truth. His little shred of blue.