Article taken from Entertainment Weekly.

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.

Though the movies contained timeline (nearly all of it takes place over the course of a single day) and multifaceted cast may land far from traditional biography, its a testament to Davis own formidable presence how wholly and magnetically her Ma registers on screen. As she speaks from home in Los Angeles, her face scrubbed clean of makeup and her small frame swallowed in a plush cream-colored bathrobe, its almost impossible to connect the thoughtful, diminutive figure in the Zoom lens with Raineys outsize persona, a gale force of smeared greasepaint and bravado, hips and bosom filled out to regal proportions and voice a throaty juke-joint rumble.

In fact, Davis, whose stage career found root in Wilsons storied Century Cycle of plays, including the role that would lead toher 2017 Oscar forFences, initially tried hard not to take the part. (I just didnt see myself, she admits. I saw a larger-stature woman who sang, whod been around for a while.) Thankfully Wolfe and herFencescostar Washington, who producedRaineys, harbored no such doubts; legendary costume designer Ann Roth, whose work spans fromMidnight CowboytoMamma Mia!, helped bridge the physical gap with horsehair wigs, gold-capped teeth, and clever padding beneath the bedazzled Jazz Age finery.

What proved much scanter was historical record: Only seven still photographs of Rainey survive, and a scattered jumble of audio recordings. Still now in 2021, we know more about Bessie Smith. We know more about Billie Holiday, we know more about Ethel Waters, but we know nothing about Ma Rainey, Davis laments. She was the first, and yet she basically was invisible.

Finding unsung stories to tell has become a kind of signature for the star, one born out of both frustration and necessity. Thats why youll find her not only in the prestige dramas that shaped her as a young graduate just out of Juilliard but in less expected projects like the zingy feminist heist flickWidows; 2016s winking, blood-spatteredSuicide Squad(shell reprise the rolein this years sequel); and the risqu Shonda Rhimes legal thrillerHow to Get Away With Murder, which ran for six seasons on ABC and earned her a landmark Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

You know I had nine failed pilots, right? Davis asks with a bittersweet smile. I was 49 when I gotMurder.The Helpdid a lot of work.Doubtdid a lot of work.Antwone Fisherdid a lot of work. But it was a network TV show that put me on the map. Its just heartbreaking as a woman when youre not seen as pretty and when youre not seen as young. When youre darker than a paper bag, no one sees you. They just dont. If I want any kind of role that is deeper, more complicated, more specific, then I have to look for it. And once I look for it, trust me, I have to develop it. Very much so.

To that end, she has several projects coming via her production company JuVee, includingThe Woman King a Black femaleBraveheart helmed byThe Old GuardsGina Prince-BythewoodandShowtimesThe First Ladyanthology, in which shell portrayMichelle Obamaalongside the likes ofMichelle Pfeiffer(as Betty Ford) andGillian Anderson(Eleanor Roosevelt). Self-made women, warriors, and American royalty? You might say there are some roles she was born to play.

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