This article is part of our 2020 return. Follow us and discover the best and most interesting films, shows, performances and more from this very strange year. In this post, we bow to Chadwick Boseman and explain, although it may seem obvious, why he’s our Actor of the Year 2020.
Chadwick Boseman was a hero, and he also played one in the movie. Although colon cancer ended his life at the annoyingly young age of 43 last August and risks sounding incredibly hokey, Boseman will continue to be a hero as people keep watching movies.
We’ll never have the privilege again since it was released on December 18th of Ma Rainey’s black bottomto see a new performance of his, but Boseman’s truly remarkable filmography remains to be discovered by generations of film viewers. Generations growing up knowing an unapologetic, big budget black Hollywood superhero movie as a reality don’t just something briefly featured in the final Hollywood Shuffle dream sequence.
Could Black Panther were made without Boseman? For sure. But even for those who oppose magical thinking, there is a special synergy with Boseman’s casting as T’Challa, not just because he brought the character to life in remarkable ways, but because it feels like an accomplishment, too who drove him his entire career.
From his first film role – a minor supporting role as Famer Floyd Little’s Pro Football Hall in the 2008 film The Express: The Ernie Davis Story – Boseman’s filmography is full of black heroes in a landscape where stories about black heroes are still not exactly the norm.
He played his first leading role in 2013 when he played the groundbreaking baseball icon Jackie Robinson 42. The following year he brought James Brown to life on the big screen Get on Above. In 2017, Thurgood Marshall received the same star treatment in Marshall.
Boseman’s filmography was not acquired through just skill, luck, a good agent, or a combination of these things – of course, all of these components contribute. The point is, it is a filmography that can only be the result of very conscious, focused effort.
In the past few years, as he expanded his influence into the field of manufacturing, Boseman’s intentionality in his work and the stories he wanted his remarkable talents to contribute to became more evident.
However, the title at the top of this post is Performer of the Year. So let’s talk specifically about the two screen performances that turned out to be Boseman’s last. His roles as Stormin ‘Norman in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and Levee in George C. Wolfe’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom mark the beginning of a remarkable new phase in an already incredible career. Now that Boseman has risen to become one of the greatest heroes, his final roles suggest a desire to branch out further and challenge himself while continuing to be a firm believer in amplifying black voices beyond his own.
In Da 5 Bloods, his intriguing on-screen presence brings the pivotal role of Stormin ‘Norman to life. While Boseman was a true A-lister, he was still open to using his talents in supporting roles, and Stormin ‘Norman’s pivotal role is exactly the kind of supporting character that needs someone with the presence of a leading man.
He is the motivation that leads the surviving members of the all-black squad of US Army soldiers to refer to themselves as “Bloods” to return to Vietnam decades after the war, and he is the ghost that haunts them all. Since 5 Bloods requires Norman’s absence to be a tangible void throughout. While he has little time to make a big impression, Boseman handles these sizeable demands with ease. He’s the hinge on which the movie’s emotional stakes are based, and he manages to do it.
As the unfortunate trumpeter Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, blessed with considerable musical talent but cursed in the sense that he lacks the resources or skills to make something of himself, Boseman’s final film role is also his darkest. Levee is a troubled soul who has been shaped by a series of early traumas.
As its name suggests, it holds back an overflow, but it quickly becomes clear that it is reaching a breaking point and that it is not so much about whether it will self-destruct, but when. He throws himself in a door until it breaks open because the American dream myth tells you that hard work and gum should pay off, but instead he just finds a dead end on the other side.
The soul-destroying experience of having all the odds against you and not being able to beat them is hardly unique to the Black experience, but it is symbolic of it. Even looking at those who have defied the chances of creative endeavors, the capture of this particular pain is a thread that links a number of the best-known works in living memories of black storytellers: Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” A Raisin In The One Sun, the Lorraine Hansberry piece that takes its name from the poem, a series of August Wilson’s works. It’s a tragic, iconic archetype that Boseman fully and heartbreakingly recounts in his portrayal of Levee. In a way, Levee feels like the foil for the heroes who defy the odds. Boseman has made a name for himself, and he proves he’s up to the task of playing directly against the guy.
Levee is an inherently theatrical role in many ways – full of mercury swings prone to big talk – but Boseman manages to hit every note perfectly and keep his performance from ever feeling like something out of a recorded play. He has mastered his craft to convey just as much through facial expressions and body language in quiet moments as in the most important exchange dialogues.
Even the most abrupt changes in Levee’s mood feel natural and utterly compelling because of Boseman’s performance, the way tension only radiates from his body. The way he manages to maintain a pervasive desperation in his gaze at all times that crosses the line between a pathetic, kicked puppy quality and an unconnected mania. He’s a character full of contradictions, and Boseman makes each and every one of them complete – you fear him and fear him at the same time.
2020 brought us two great accomplishments from Chadwick Boseman and the most tragic reason to ponder his career. He had that indescribable star quality that went beyond skill and talent – the ability to fill an IMAX screen and convince you that he belonged there, several stories tall. The kind of performer who got attention in an effortless way. It shared the screen with the most famous names of our time and the most eye-catching special effects money can buy, and was never overshadowed. He’s our 2020 actor, but also so much more.
In his life and career, Boseman was and is more than just an A-list actor and icon. In the intentionality of his decisions and in the way he used his star power as he rose through the ranks, the stories he wanted his talents to contribute to, he represents the best that the film industry can be and do. He brought black heroes from the annals of history and the pages of comics to life in truly unprecedented ways, bigger than life, and in a film career spanning less than two decades.
While his brilliant recent films feel like the beginning of an exciting career development that we will tragically never see, the accomplishments Chadwick Boseman has given us in the time he has had are joys we will continue to cherish.