The actress undergoes a thrilling transformation in Netflix’s awards contender. Could Oscar No. 2 be on the way?
At this point, it’s cliché to compare Viola Davis to Meryl Streep. By her own admission, the first Black artist ever to win the triple crown of acting awards (Oscar, Emmy, Tony) is rarely offered the parts her white Doubt costar (and friend) is known for: larger-than-life characters made to disappear into, ones that require a thick accent, body transformation, and, occasionally, fake teeth.
While the title role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom finally provides said character for Davis — complete with a face full of makeup resembling greasepaint and a mouth full of gold teeth — she did not, initially, want to accept it.
“The spirit of an artist is you always feel like you’re going to be found out. That is how I felt with Ma Rainey,” Davis tells EW about the legendary blues singer. The Ma Rainey she recalls from a 1980s stage production was played by the late Barbara Meek, “a woman of her time who absolutely owns her power,” and is “unapologetic in nature.” Says Davis, 55: “I see myself as a lot of August Wilson characters, but not that one.” (She won an Oscar and a Tony for Wilson’s Fences, starring in both the 2016 film and 2010 Broadway revival.) When Black Bottom producer Denzel Washington offered her the role, she “suggested a slew of other actresses.”
So why did she ultimately come around? Ma Rainey shows a “part of womanhood [that] has been strangely absent from a lot of narratives that were written at the backdrop of this time period,” Davis says. “Being born in South Carolina, my aunt, my grandmother, they would get together and go to the school and beat up a teacher who whipped my mom during class. They would suss somebody out in a minute.” Returning to Ma Rainey’s fearless demeanor, Davis adds, “There is not one equation of domesticity to her at all — and she’s also the only character that’s based on a real person.”
An adaptation of Wilson’s play of the same name, the Netflix film (streaming Dec. 18) follows a group of Black bandmates in 1920s Chicago as they vie to get a successful recording session out of their demanding frontwoman. (Davis describes her as “a little bit of a fascist.”) There isn’t a single fool Ma Rainey suffers, regularly refusing to sing until her white producers meet her needs.
Davis found the physical part of playing Ma Rainey to be the easiest part of the job; those key attributes are “the given circumstances,” she says. “You can look at it and you can have your vanity walk into the room before you and say, ‘No. I want to look cuter.’ Or, ‘I want to not have the gold teeth because it may be distracting.’ But I’m one of those artists that absolutely believe that the way that you honor that character and that human being is by embracing every aspect of who they are.”
Once you put that mask on, Davis continues, “Everything else becomes the hard work. Everything else in terms of figuring out her pathology, figuring out how she fought on the day-to-day basis. From the time the movie starts to [the time] it ends, it is a chess game. It is a game of power and value. It’s constantly, ‘Okay. No…. You want to take what from me? Nuh-uh. You’re not going to take that from me. I’m going to figure out how to get that back or how to get one up on you.”
Director George C. Wolfe expands on his star’s example with a parallel metaphor. “It’s a boxing match in which the words become the punches. It’s like when you have a larger sense of who you are and the exterior world and the external world doesn’t acknowledge that, then you feel like you’re perpetually caught up in some contest,” he says. “Somebody not getting a Coke for you takes on a magnified meaning because everything is a reflection of the respect that you deserve versus the respect that you get.” (Case in point: One of the film’s most memorable scenes involves Ma Rainey halting any and all progress until she is hand-delivered her requested cold Coke.)
The Mother of Blues saves some of her most hard-hitting blows for Levee, her young, ambitious trumpeter (the final film role of Chadwick Boseman, in an exceptional performance). Trying to underhandedly modernize Ma Rainey’s music to raise his own profile, “Levee represents everything that is antithetical towards her belief system,” says Davis. “He is representative of a new phase of music that will render her extinct. He is unruly and undisciplined.” Adds Wolfe: “Levee is a metaphor for this country. He has a vision of the future that’s spectacular, but he has never healed or fully acknowledged his past, and that’s the question for America right now.”
Davis remembers her climatic dressing-down of Levee as particularly gratifying. “I’m a person myself who has issues with confrontation. I felt like that entire sequence was about ownership of power,” she says. “It was about letting every motherf—er in the room know who’s the boss.” Message received.