Davis performance inMa Raineys Black Bottomcements her as the most Oscar-nominated Black actress ever.

All she wanted was a Coca-Cola. In one ofMa Raineys Black Bottoms most telling scenes,the titular singer played with fierce, queenly self-possession byViola Davis demands a cold soda from the white producers so eager to harness her sound on a sweltering Chicago day circa 1927. It would have set them back a nickel at the corner store; if they dont get right with Ma real quick, its about to cost them a lot more.

From the moment you see her to the moment she leaves the screen, she is hustling for her worth, Davis says of her real-life muse, once anointed Mother of the Blues and then largely lost to history until Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson reimagined her on stage in 1984. She is demanding it. Shes not begging for it. But the deeper sense of that is Value me, see me, I exist. Im a human being too, I deserve respect.

A heart attack would fell Rainey in her 50s, and obscurity swallowed the rest. Now 55, the actress portraying her in directorGeorge C. Wolfes acclaimed Netflix adaptation hardly foretells the same fate: The winner of an Oscar, an Emmy, and two Tonys, she is the rare Hollywood player whose name evokes both near-universal acclaim and commercial viability. Costars likeMeryl StreepandDenzel Washingtonregularly sing her praises;The New York Timesrecentlynamed her No. 9 on its list of the 25 best actors working today.

But Davis is also deeply aware of the struggle it took to get there much of her mainstream success arrived, improbably, after age 40 and how far the business still has to go when it comes to not only recognizing Black talent but exploring their stories on screen in meaningful, nonreductive ways. That big, loud, bodacious woman who comes in at the ninth hour and gives her one-line zingers has become a caricature, a stereotype, Davis says, snapping her fingers in exasperated imitation. She makes everyone laugh and she walks off, but we dont know who she is.

Ultimately,Raineysoffers only tantalizing hints of Mas backstory, with many of the scripts more expansive monologues resting in the hands of her foil and bandmate, the fatefully tempestuous trumpet player Levee a role for whichChadwick Bosemanis almost certainly and deservedly guaranteed a posthumous Academy Award come April 25. Davis is quick to credit Boseman, whom she also appeared with in the 2014 James Brown biopicGet on Up, for the man he was on and off set: You know what? If I were there to draw a picture of Chadwick, I would have a halo in the back of his head. Thats how absolutely extraordinarily unique and angelic he was, and how pure about his art.

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