Viola Davis is the first Black artist ever to win the triple crown of acting awards: an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony. By now, she’s used to the comparisons between her and Meryl Streep, even though she’s rarely offered the same parts her Doubt costar is known for, which require a thick accent, body transformation, and, sometimes, fake teeth.
The title role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom finally provided exactly that for Davis, but initially, she did not want to accept the part.
“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 said in an interview with EW about the legendary blues singer.
The Ma Rainey Davis 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.”
“I see myself as a lot of August Wilson characters, but not that one,” she told the publication. When Denzel Washington, a producer on the film, offered her the role, she “suggested a slew of other actresses” who could play the part instead.
So, why did Davis ultimately come around?
According to the actress, 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.” She continued, “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.”
According to Davis, the physical part of playing Ma Rainey was the easiest part of the job.
“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 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.“
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom follows a group of Black bandmates in 1920s Chicago as they vie to get a successful recording session out of their demanding frontwoman. The film--which also marks the late Chadwick Boseman’s last time onscreen--will be streaming on Netflix starting December 18.