Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman Shine in Oscar-Caliber Performances

“The fight is not easy and it is not over,” says Viola Davis, who even as one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation, is still battling prejudice. “Taking control of your destiny in Hollywood isn’t enough. You need to do the walk, to keep pace with stiff competition. There’s still a huge part where you’re fighting for those projects, where you are on the same playing field as your white counterparts.”


Viola Davis
David Lee / Netflix
Fight has been integral in Davis’s long journey to becoming the first African American thesp to achieve the elusive Triple Crown of Acting, a symbolic title bestowed on those who win a competitive Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award. Davis, 55, who began her career in the mid-1990s, has since earned two Tonys (for Fences and King Hedley II), an Oscar (for the film version of Fences) and an Emmy (for the TV series How to Get Away with Murder).
Yet it is not the acclaim that keeps her going — on the contrary. “A big motivating factor for me is feeling that I’m not valued,” she says. “It either makes me come up like a pit bull or feel like crap.”
If Davis is looking for an inspirational figure, she need look no further than the titular character she plays in her latest movie, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — a Netflix movie that might well win her another Oscar nomination.
Produced by Denzel Washington (who directed and co-starred with her in Fences), and directed by George C Wolfe, Ma Rainey is adapted from August Wilson’s 1983 play, one of 10 comprising his epic cycle about the African American experienceSet in Chicago circa 1927, the music-infused drama centres on a recording session for the strong-willed Southern blues singer who clashes with Levee, a hot-headed musician played by the late Chadwick Boseman.
A real historical figure, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was known for touring with her husband Will “Pa” Rainey on the Chitlin’ Circuit, which staged shows that often mocked people of colour but also provided them with a rare commercial outlet in an era of racial segregation. “The establishment called the Blues ‘the devil’s music,’ because black people sang it,” Davis says. “A negative connotation was placed on it, when it was really a form of expression in a culture that literally took away their voices.”
But Ma Rainey was having none of it. “She was always up for the fight, and always unapologetic,” enthuses Davis. “The relationship between blacks and whites at that time was based on blacks’ agreement to be allowed to be used, and that was something Ma Rainey just wasn’t up for.”
For all her frankness, however, there were also incongruities. “She was the kind of woman who went to orgies on Thursdays, and by Sunday she was at church. She was beating up a 200 pound man in a bar on Saturday, and on Sunday she was praising the Lord. She was a mass of contradictions, like any human being, but at the centre there was a woman who absolutely stood firm for what she was worth.”
And that extended to her sexuality: “I had to really understand that Dussie May [played in the film by Taylour Paige] was her lover. It was my mission to absolutely not make that element a negative. I approached my character without any editorial comment.”
In taking on the role, Davis was determined that all the choices she made were based on fact, though she found only seven photos of the real Ma Rainey: “They show her as a striking physical presence, having dark skin, her hair was made out of horsehair, her mouth full of gold teeth, make-up so thick it looked like greasepaint melting off her face. She always looked wet, dripping with sweat.”
And Davis was uncompromising in her search for the inner and outer truth of the character — even if it makes audiences feel uncomfortable: “You may look at her and go, ‘Oh, Wow,’ because she looked strange and funny. I wanted that specific body structure of a large-sized woman. I totally went for her look to honour her, I didn’t care about honouring the comfort of the audience. I really felt liberation once I had that padding on, I felt freer swishing my big hips, saying, ‘look at me!’
For Davis, who has spoken about growing up in a large family of meagre means in Central Falls, Rhode Island, it was joyful to play someone who reflected the women she grew up with, “women who felt confident about themselves, about their bodies, about their abilities, women who would cuss out if men crossed the boundaries with them.”
She says that in portraying the indomitable singer, she channelled one family member in particular: “My Aunt Joyce was big, close to over 250 pounds, but she was absolutely beautiful. You really felt that she could get any man. She didn’t feel any sense of apology for her presence — she was who she was. I drew on a persona that wasn’t defined by the oppressive white gaze.”
Davis feels that even decades later, such prejudices persist. “They label us ‘difficult’ because they want to demonise qualities in us that are correct. There’s fear in the oppressors — usually white men. There’s a tendency to tether you, to control you, to mould you into just an extension of something that’s going to work for them. But our culture now is becoming different. We demand to define ourselves for ourselves, we are not apologetic because we understand our real worth.”
Ma Rainey features the final performance of another major African American movie star, Chadwick Boseman, who died unexpectedly in August of colon cancer at the age of 43. He plays Ma Rainey’s professional and romantic rival, Levee, an arrogant, ambitious trumpeter. “Chadwick was a genuine artist. He channelled all he had into Levee, which is probably the greatest role for a young African American actor in theatrical history,” Davis says. “He didn’t want to talk about the success of Black Panther, which he sort of checked at the door. He just wanted to commit to his part and honour the other actors. That’s the beauty of his legacy.”
Looking beyond Hollywood, Davis notes that “we’ve seen too much the results of bad politics, but we are now at a point where we have to take politics back for ourselves, to demand that politicians must work for us.”
She describes herself as hopeful, “because without hope there’s death” but is realistic how long it will be before there is true equality. “It’s going to take generations to see the change we need. I don’t think you can undo systemic racism of 400 years in the course of one year. But I am encouraged by all these awesome young people who showed up and showed out. Born at a time when they had a black president, or seeing the first female vice-president, they’re much more open and pliable than we are.”
With a growing list of producer credits to her name, Davis has set up JuVee Productions, a company that she founded with her husband, Julius Tennon (they married in 2002) with the aim of giving voice to the voiceless through culturally relevant narratives. It began as a vehicle for her own career as she faced hurdles in getting the roles she wanted, but its goals have since broadened: “It became obvious pretty soon that we had to find the emerging artists and the right material for them. What we do is hard because of the stories we wish to tell. We want to see people of colour across the board normalised.”
Yet despite her considerable industry clout and frequent appearances on red-carpets wearing designer gowns and expensive jewellery, she has trouble leaving her past behind. “I have to always stop and try to marry Viola, who grew up in Central Falls, with the Viola who’s on the cover of glossy magazines. I still have to reconcile the two. What helps me, what brings me back to the moment of feeling grounded, 50 years later, is that I am not that girl any more, I don’t live in that environment any more.”
Davis cautions artists of underrepresented minorities who want to follow her lead: “You have to answer a crucial question: ‘What do you want to be?’ My sensibility is like no one else’s.  That’s not good or bad, it just is.”  This subjectivity is also applied to her role as a mother: “My daughter Genesis is not an extension of my life, or my dream, she is her own person. I try to be honest in telling her that people are flawed and life is a mess. And I allow her to ask questions and tell me how she feels, and I validate those feelings.”
The fight continues — and sometimes it is an internal struggle. “When my fight kicks in and I have anxiety, I know it’s provoked by childhood and I have to say, ‘Viola, you have a big refrigerator now, you have working toilets, you are a different woman — and then it relaxes me, for a while. But the 55-year-old Viola must always engage in conversation with the 5-year-old Viola, they always have to negotiate.”