Netflix to Campaign Chadwick Boseman as Lead Actor for ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

The late actor could make history joining Peter Finch and Heath Ledger as posthumous Oscar nominees.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020): (L to R) Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, Director George C. Wolfe, and Chadwick Boseman as Levee. Cr. David Lee / Netflix
David Lee/Netflix

As the Oscar season continues to unfold, a new question has been answered for the upcoming awards circuit. Netflix has confirmed to Variety that it will campaign the late Chadwick Boseman in the lead actor category for his role in the upcoming “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Based on the play by Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson, the film takes place in 1927 Chicago, where tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious trumpeter Levee, and the white management determined to control her music.

Academy Award winner Viola Davis (“Fences”) plays the “Mother of the Blues” and will also campaign for best actress. The rest of the cast, including Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts and Taylour Paige, will all campaign in the supporting categories. There has only been one film in Oscar history to manage more than two Black acting nominations from a film: 1985’s “The Color Purple.”

The 1984 original Broadway production, which starred Theresa Merritt and Charles S. Dutton as Ma Rainey and Levee, respectively, were both bizarrely nominated in the featured actor and featured actress categories at the Tony Awards. Many admirers of the Wilson play have long felt that Levee’s role is a co-lead, equally as important and narratively driven as Ma Rainey’s name title. Others have felt it rides the line between a lead and supporting role, but sources have shared that early viewings of the film adaptation make a stronger and definitive leading depiction.

Boseman, who died in August from colon cancer, will also have his work in “Da 5 Bloods” from Spike Lee to be considered in best supporting actor. If nominated in best actor, Boseman would be the first posthumous nominee in the category since Massimo Troisi for 1995’s “Il Postino.” If nominated in supporting, he would be just the third person in Oscar history following Ralph Richardson (1984’s “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes”) and Oscar-winner Heath Ledger (2008’s “The Dark Knight”).

In a Monday presentation to entertainment journalists, Netflix showcased scenes from the film, giving deeper context to the story, along with a moderated Q&A with Davis and director George C. Wolfe. The excitement for the film continues to build.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” will be released on Netflix on Dec. 18.