Viola Davis On Playing the Powerful Ma Rainey: ‘She Was Unapologetic’

First Look: Davis talks about Ma Rainey’s swagger and Chadwick Boseman’s last role

Adrienne Gibbs
ZORA
Published in
7 min readOct 15, 2020

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Viola Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Viola Davis talks to ZORA about Ma Rainey for the Netflix adaptation of the August Wilson play, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Chadwick Boseman. Photos: David Lee/Netflix

ZORA’s exclusive First Look at the film adaptation of August Wilson’s 1984 play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which will be released on Netflix December 18, 2020.

When we first see the Mother of the Blues in Netflix’s new adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, she is swinging her thick hips, breasts spill out of her dress, her gold front teeth glisten and the prim and proper audience salivates as they sit on their makeshift box stools and sway to the sexy music. It’s hot. It’s dark. And Ma, as they call her, is an unapologetically powerful Black woman harnessing brains, brawn, and boobs to get to the top of the charts while retaining ownership of her image and rights to her music during the era of Jim Crow.

Fans of the original August Wilson play know the storyline, but the additional beauty of this version is that a Broadway-quality Wilson production is available to anyone with a phone or a television set. It also doesn’t hurt that Viola Davis stars as the master negotiator Ma while Chadwick Boseman stars opposite her as the horn-playing, authority-jiving Levee, in the Black Panther star’s last film role prior to his untimely death. Venerable playwright George C. Wolfe directs this who’s who of Black art and Black history, which streams in December and largely takes place inside of a recording session in Chicago.

“Usually Ma Rainey and how she looks has been greatly stereotyped in cinematic history and in life,” says Davis, explaining her approach to the character. “The Black woman is always dark, fat, funny, can sing, and is really not sexualized in any way that is dangerous. But that’s not my understanding of women like that. Ma is my Auntie Joyce, my Aunt Letha, who were highly sexual and the most beautiful women I ever seen in my life. They were stylish.”

Knowing thick women who embraced their voluptuous beauty helped Davis to craft her own character. She gained weight for the role, getting close to…

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Adrienne Gibbs
ZORA
Editor for

Director of Content @Medium. Award-winning Writer. Editor. Mother. Featured on Beyoncé's year in review film.