Chadwick Boseman's Best Performances : Pop Culture Happy Hour Chadwick Boseman is nominated for an Oscar this year for his performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. It's his final onscreen role — he died of colon cancer in August. Before that, Boseman played historical figures including Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson and James Brown. And of course, he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Panther. And today we're talking about some of those essential performances.
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Chadwick Boseman's Essential Performances

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Chadwick Boseman's Essential Performances

Chadwick Boseman's Essential Performances

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Chadwick Boseman is nominated for an Oscar this year for his performance in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." The film came out several months after his death in August 2020.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Before that, Boseman played historical figures, including Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson and James Brown. And of course, he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Panther. I'm Aisha Harris.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about some of Chadwick Boseman's essential performances on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: Welcome back. You just met Aisha. Also with us from his home in Alexandria, Va., is Ronald Young Jr. Ronald is host of the podcast "Leaving The Theater" and associate producer of the new VPM and WitnessDocs podcast "Seizing Freedom." Welcome back, Ronald.

RONALD YOUNG JR: Thanks for having me.

HOLMES: So we've been doing this essentials series in which we've looked at performances from actors like Regina King and Steven Yeun. Chadwick Boseman's career was cut short last year. He died of colon cancer in August. He was 43. He kept the fact that he was being treated for cancer within a very small circle of people until his death.

We really wanted to take a look at some of the performances that show his range and his skill over and above "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which is his final onscreen performance. He won a Golden Globe for that role last month, and now he's up for an Oscar. Boseman was a playwright and worked in theater as a young actor. There's a great piece in The Undefeated by our friend Soraya Nadia McDonald that looks at that legacy, particularly from his time at Howard University. His big break as a film actor came when he played Jackie Robinson in the 2013 film "42."

Aisha, I want to start with you. You chose one of those biopic roles to talk about.

HARRIS: I did, indeed. By the time "Black Panther" came along, there was kind of a running gag that Chadwick Boseman was going to play literally every Black icon ever...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: There sure was.

HARRIS: ...Because, you know, obviously he played Jackie Robinson. He also would play Thurgood Marshall. And the pick that I brought is "Get On Up," the 2014 film he made where he starred as none other than James Brown, the godfather of soul. You know, biopics are really hard to pull off. And it's really interesting to watch this movie because I think that Tate Taylor, who directed it - and who previously directed "The Help," which made me a little bit concerned when this movie first came out, about how this is going to tackle someone like James Brown after a movie like "The Help" - but what it does is it doesn't tell the story linearly. It kind of jumps around in time.

It opens with Chadwick in old-age makeup. This is, like, him in his 50s, 60s, when he got kind of erratic, was clearly having an issue with drugs. And it opens with him going to one of the businesses he owns and being really upset. He's there with a shotgun and being really upset that someone used his bathroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GET ON UP")

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As James Brown) Now, imagine unhinging your pants. And you open your door to your master bathroom and you see me, James Brown, just sitting there, taking a break. Now, I'm a busy man, and I'm guessing you cats are, too. But a personal convenience has been abused here. Which one of you gentle folks hung a No. 2 in my commode?

HARRIS: And it's just a really bizarre setup that kind of hints at what the rest of the movie is. And what I love about Chadwick in this movie is that he is able to channel Brown in all his different incarnations - from being a young, sort of very ambitious man, to then being sort of this shining pillar of soul, this creator, this fantastic artist, and then also the more darker moments of his life.

And I rarely quote myself, but I'm going to quote myself because I was on the early Chadwick Boseman bandwagon in 2014. I wrote a piece in Slate wondering about Chadwick Boseman's chances at that time for the Oscar. And I wrote, "It takes a special actor to overcome aging makeup and a rickety script to make sloppy filmmaking sing. 'Get On Up' suggests Boseman is that kind of actor." And really, he truly is.

He nails all of the moves. He nails the sound, the raspiness of his voice, 'cause if you look at this film and you hold it up next to something like "Black Panther" or "42," where he has to be a little bit more reserved and still very powerful but very, very quiet in many moments, James Brown here is just kind of very eccentric.

There's one scene in particular that I really appreciate, and this is a moment where we get to see him kind of at work with his band. And you get a sense of the way in which he's able to command the screen and the way James Brown was able to command his band.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GET ON UP")

CRAIG ROBINSON: (As Maceo Parker) Clyde'll be in a different time than the rest of the band. It doesn't work musically.

BOSEMAN: (As James Brown) How many hit records you got, sir? Huh? Fellas, does it sound good?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yeah.

BOSEMAN: (As James Brown) Does it feel good?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yeah.

BOSEMAN: (As James Brown) God made your ears. You didn't make them. You gonna argue with God's ears? If it sounds good and it feels good, then it's musical. So play it like I say play it.

HARRIS: So you've got him as this strict disciplinarian, but then the way the script is, there is - like I mentioned, there's a lot of jumping around. There's playing with the storytelling. So he will occasionally look to the screen. Either he'll, like, break the fourth wall and flash a grin or, like, a sly smile. He just has all this mischievousness and playfulness going on, and I think that's why Chadwick, to me, stands out in this role and is able to make this movie and some of the other movies that he was in, elevate it beyond what the script was, even though the script wasn't amazing, per se.

YOUNG: Yeah. You know, I agree with everything Aisha said. And one thing I noticed is that every single time that I saw Chadwick on screen, the movie was better because I really didn't like that movie. And it was weird to watch a movie, not like it, but enjoy his performance so much, everything that he did. And it actually reminded me of a lot of Jamie Foxx's performance in "Ray," where you're watching this very charismatic figure - and maybe this is more a comparison between Ray Charles and James Brown - but watching this very charismatic figure who is bringing you - drawing you in with their charisma and then also repelling you with some of the more darker and horrible things that they do to the people around them. Like, that's walking a tightrope, playing that type of performance.

And at times, you know, it wasn't Chadwick Boseman at all anymore. I'm just like, well, this is James Brown; as far as I'm concerned, I'm watching James Brown play himself right now, so - and the physicality of the performance was just something that I was amazed. Watching him do the dancing is just - you watch a guy be Black Panther, then you watch him do, like, the James Brown "Mashed Potatoes." It's just like - it's out of control. I loved it.

HOLMES: It is. And it's interesting to me how often with a biopic like that, we wind up having a similar conversation to this, which is, I was really impressed by this performance, but I feel like the movie around it was not necessarily great.

YOUNG: Yes.

HOLMES: I think some people had that conversation when Renee Zellweger played Judy Garland. I have heard a lot of that conversation this year about Andra Day playing Billie Holiday. It does seem like that is a common issue with biopics, is that all the energy goes into that central performance, and you wind up with it kind of swamping the film as a whole.

So that's "Get On Up" from 2014. It is now streaming on Netflix. I want to talk about - now, look; on the one hand, I'm a basic, so what I want to talk about is "Black Panther." But the reason I chose it is partly that I think I underestimated this performance the first time I saw it. I loved this movie, but a lot of my attention and my praise went to the super dynamic Michael B. Jordan performance, these wonderful performances from Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira and these really - all the terrific people who are in this movie, all around. And I think I mistook the quietness of this performance for not doing a lot with this part. And it is only in rewatching it that I have sort of come to appreciate it a little bit more and, also, seeing it alongside some of his other performances.

I want to play a clip. This is a confrontation, when he confronts Forest Whitaker after seeing a ring on someone he does not expect to be wearing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa/Black Panther) What happened to my Uncle N'Jobu? My father told me he disappeared. There was a man today wearing a ring identical to this one.

FOREST WHITAKER: (As Zuri) That is not possible.

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa/Black Panther) He helped Klaue escape from us, and he was wearing this ring, my grandfather's ring. Do not tell me what is possible; tell me the truth.

HOLMES: The thing about the end of that is that's T'Challa yelling, you know what I mean? That's him kind of starting to really get stern and lose his temper. And if you've seen him in "Get On Up," or you've seen kind of his big monologue in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," you know that he can modulate that anywhere on a very broad scale. And the decision to make T'Challa someone who really keeps his level - calm, right? - I think is partly the fact that he's a new king. I think it's partly the fact that it's just his personality. And I think it's partly the fact that he's kind of an interior guy in a lot of ways. And I think the more I have watched this performance, the more I have come to understand that it does that for the character. It also does important things for the movie, because he has to have enough vulnerability that, even though he's a king and a superhero, that he seems vulnerable to Killmonger. And I think the fact that Chadwick Boseman makes him a quiet, not super explosive or dynamic type of character makes him seem a little bit uncertain in a way that he isn't actually. Aisha, do you have "Black Panther" thoughts?

HARRIS: Oh, yeah. I mean, this is probably the only Marvel superhero movie I've seen more than once. I've seen it many, many times, and I totally agree with you on that point. I also think what's so fascinating about this performance in juxtaposition with the others is, like you said, he really does know how to use his instrument in all these different ways. And so even though, yes, he did have the habit of playing all these, quote-unquote, "Black icons," he recognized that each Black icon was very different. They are all very different in certain ways. And so with James Brown, a lot of it comes down to physicality within the body and the movement and getting the moves down right and the voice down right. And then here, we also see him being - obviously, he has physicality as well, because he has a lot of big action sequences.

HOLMES: Right.

HARRIS: But so much of it is also him just, like, standing tall and being tall. And so it's just a testament to his dedication and his ability not to judge the characters that he's playing and to take them very seriously and their desires and their wants very seriously. I think that's part of what makes this performance so great.

YOUNG: The one thing that I do want to note is that he originates this character, T'Challa, on "Captain America: Civil War."

HOLMES: Yes.

YOUNG: And if you really want to be impressed by his acting, watch "Black Panther," but then go back and watch "Civil War," and then watch it a little more closely. And if you notice, I'm sitting there watching it, and I'm like - there's something that goes on in the nerd forums online where they're like, oh, T'Challa was so different on "Civil War." It's just such a different character. And I'm like, no, T'Challa had just watched his father die...

HOLMES: Right.

YOUNG: ...And was extremely angry. He was grieving in a way that was lashing out in violence. And if you watch even the way that he's fighting, even the way that he's delivering his lines, the way that he's threatening people, in "Civil War" versus watching him become fully realized in "Black Panther," that's a feat of acting that I think doesn't get talked about enough - about what Chadwick Boseman had to do to go from this level of grieving to a completely different level of grieving in "Black Panther." So I was very impressed by that.

HOLMES: Well, yeah, and it makes sense to me that, you know, really, the responsibility of leading his people takes over, and he has a different set of responsibilities and obligations. And I think that's what the whole movie is about...

YOUNG: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...In a lot of ways. So when you see that change between him in "Civil War" and him in "Black Panther," you get a sense of what the entire conflict of "Black Panther" is. How do you be good and be a king?

YOUNG: Yeah.

HOLMES: So, you know, you might have heard of it, "Black Panther." You can find it on Disney+. It's pretty good. Ronald, what did you bring?

YOUNG: I brought the 2019 classic, "21 Bridges," directed by Brian Kirk, produced by the Russo Brothers, in which Chadwick Boseman is playing a New York City detective who is tasked with finding two young cop killers who are involved in a heist that goes wrong. They end up killing seven cops, and he has to go on a massive citywide manhunt to find them. The one thing I like about this movie is this is when we arguably get the most regular version of Chadwick Boseman.

In this performance, he's just bringing to life police detective Andre Davis, who is a legacy cop, and we have to care about that pretty quickly into the movie. And the way they do this is just by setting it up in the beginning where Chadwick Boseman is actually in an internal affairs investigation for a police-involved shooting that he's been involved in, and he's giving a few monologues about what it means to be a police officer, what it means to fire his gun. And he's doing what he does very well, which is a lot of emoting with his face.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "21 BRIDGES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You've shot eight people in nine years.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Do you regret any?

BOSEMAN: (As Andre Davis) I've been to the psychologist.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) That's not an answer.

BOSEMAN: (As Andre Davis) No, I do not regret any.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Faces don't come to you in your sleep.

BOSEMAN: (As Andre Davis) Justice comes at a cost.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Justice is not determined by you.

BOSEMAN: (As Andre Davis) But I am the sharp end of that determination.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Says who?

BOSEMAN: (As Andre Davis) My badge, my oath.

YOUNG: But after that, for the rest of this movie, because it's an action movie, we don't get nearly as much of the emotive, expressive performances that we normally get from Boseman because he really doesn't have much to do as a cop. He's just - he's angry. He's accurate. He shoots his gun. He kills people. He doesn't miss. And very much watching this, I was like, this is a very Denzel performance. And, you know, Denzel brings his whole Denzel to every single performance that he does. I feel like Chadwick Boseman shows in this that I can also do that, but with me, you get so much more in the performances that I bring to the table. So I think that this was probably the smallest version of Chadwick Boseman that we get out of all the performances that we talked about. But I still really enjoyed it, and I would have loved to have seen him do 10 more movies just like this, interspersed with him doing, you know, another couple dozen movies about being Clarence Thomas next time.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Ooh, boy.

HOLMES: Aisha, where are you on "21 Bridges?"

HARRIS: Well, so I hadn't seen it before this, in part because it kind of looked like the standard police detective movie. And there's a place and a time for them. I've enjoyed and watched many of them. I agree with you that once the movie gets going, it focuses much more on the criminals he's trying to catch and their journey and we don't get as much Chadwick.

But I do think that it is interesting to watch him play this normal character because even from the very beginning, from the first scene he's in, I was like, oh, his voice is so different. Like, I'm so used to hearing him always have some sort of accent or some sort of affectation to his voice. And here to hear him speak in a more normal voice and the way in which he's able to even do that incredibly well to really take this very sort of boilerplate, you know, police officer - like, Dad was a cop. He died in the line of fire, and now I have to preserve his legacy sort of thing and making it so that all of the moments you can kind of see him making very deliberate choices. The character never gets lost even when the character does get lost. Like, it feels like he understands that character's motivations in every scene.

And so I do think that, you know, you should go into it knowing this is not going to break any new ground in terms of the way in which these types of stories are told. But there were some interviews he did where he talked about wanting to sort of channel all the great '70s movies like "The French Connection." You know, it doesn't quite get there, but I see where he is going. And I can see him as, like, a Popeye Doyle of this era. And I would have loved to as well seen him do more of those types of movies.

YOUNG: Can I just say one thing before we get a bunch of angry emails? He is using a New York accent in this movie, which, if you listen, there's one monologue in the beginning when he's talking to the FBI. And I'm listening to him talking and I was like, oh, oh, that's New York, New York. And Chadwick Boseman is from South Carolina. So I will say the one thing he does in all of his movies is he really does his research because I'm sitting here listening and I'm like, man, you'd think he'd been there all of his life. And of course, he did the New York acting circuits. I'm sure he's been around those accents enough to really understand them. But you're right. Like, listening to it at first glance, you're like, oh, yeah, it's just regular voice Chadwick Boseman.

HARRIS: Thank you for saving me from the New York City (laughter) folks. Thank you.

HOLMES: Yeah. I think, you know, one of the things - and when you talk about the possibility that there was kind of, like, a potential Denzel future for him in terms of some of these kinds of parts, it just is, I think, another reminder that, you know, when you lose an actor, an artist like this, at a young age, it's really hard not to imagine all the things that you wish that they had gotten to do, the way that really good actors often go through a couple of different phases when they're in their 50s and 60s. And it's just a terrible, terrible loss. But I'm glad that we could talk about these three performances. They're all available to rent or stream. And we want to know about your favorite Chadwick Boseman performances. You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you both for being here.

HARRIS: Thank you.

YOUNG: Thanks for having me.

HOLMES: And thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter. It is at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And we will see you all tomorrow.

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