Viola Davis on Being "Up for the Fight" in 'Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom'

Viola Davis
David Lee / Netflix

At a virtual press event for the August Wilson play, the Oscar winner spoke of working with Chadwick Boseman before his death: “Chadwick is my baby.”

In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Viola Davis is a fighter.

A Southern blues singer on the down side of her career in 1927 Chicago, Ma Rainey is in charge of her band and in love with a woman. Davis’s role in the new Netflix adaptation of the 1984 August Wilson play presented the Oscar winner with a powerful new challenge, she said, while speaking at a virtual press event for the film on Monday with her director, George C. Wolfe.

“A huge motivating factor with me is feeling like I’m not valued,” Davis said. “It either makes me come up like a pit bull or feel like crap. Ma… is up for the fight. I loved that fight in her, her unapologetic nature, even with her sexuality.”

The presentation included scenes of Chadwick Boseman singing and dancing as Ma Rainey’s professional and romantic rival, Levee, in the last performance the Black Panther star delivered before he died unexpectedly of colon cancer at age 43 in August.

“Chadwick is my baby,” Davis said, noting that she had played Boseman’s mother in Get On Up. “Chadwick was just an artist. For someone so young, it was incredible to watch that level of not mistaking your presence for the event.”

Produced by Denzel Washington, with a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will premiere on Netflix Dec. 18.

Davis found fuel in Ma Rainey’s relationship with her female lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), who has also caught Levee’s eye. “I have to get back to her sexuality,” Davis said of her character. “I felt that it was my mission to absolutely not make that a negative. When I read about Ma Rainey, Dussie May was her woman. It’s your job to approach a character without any editorial comment.”

While set during a one-day recording session in Chicago, the film tells the larger story of the Great Migration of Black southerners moving to northern cities in the first half of the 20th century, Wolfe said, during the Q&A moderated by filmmaker and journalist Nelson George, and of Ma Rainey’s fraught relationship with her white producer and agent.

“What happened when we left the south, when we left the land and came north,” Wolfe said. “How does someone with a tremendous sense of her own power deal with coming into a culture about diminishing her power?”

Davis noted the larger arc of the film, which is part of Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle that chronicles the 20th-century African-American experience.

“When you look at Ma Rainey as a narrative, you see our hopes and dreams… mixed with the trauma of our past,” Davis said. “People had big visions, big dreams. The past, though, became a huge obstacle in achieving that.”

Wearing gold teeth, thick black eye makeup, substantial wardrobe padding and a mist of sweat, Davis’s Ma Rainey is a striking physical presence. The actress said she channeled a family member, her Aunt Joyce, to create the singer’s indomitable figure.

“I wanted a very specific body structure,” Davis said. “A woman of a certain size. I wanted that body. There was liberation once I had that padding on, I actually felt freer and very very cute by the way. I was always swishing my hip. I felt like, look at me.”

See the trailer below.