Viola Davis found freedom in playing a ‘big, bisexual, dark-skinned’ woman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Reiss Smith
·3-min read

Viola Davis reflected on playing a bisexual blues singer and working with the late Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

The Oscar, Tony and Emmy-winning actor plays the “Mother of the Blues”, legendary singer Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, in the eagerly-anticipated Netlix film.

Rainey is a serious, determined and sometimes difficult Black woman, something Davis said is unusual to find on film.

“We’re so used to seeing Black characters defined by white people,” she told the BBC.

“And when they’re defined by white people, their voice gets taken away, their sexuality gets taken away.

“They are defined in the image of – take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt – but I’m gonna say it, they are defined in the mind-set of the oppressor.”

She added: “When you find a woman like Ma Rainey – she’s big, she is bisexual, she’s dark skinned, She’s all those things… Usually a character like that is just funny, she’s just big, Black and funny. That’s it. That, or she’s uber maternal.”

In real-life, Davis said, there are “a lot of Ma Raineys”. Her mother, for example, who would “take her wig off, throw it in the dirt and kick somebody’s ass if they were messing with her kids”.

“We’re always outspoken, but it’s only in the context of white people that we become invisible that we turn into something else,” she added.

Chadwick Boseman sitting at a piano, facing away from the keys, in a grey waistcoat and low-slung tie
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is Chadwick Boseman’s final film. (Netflix)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is notable for acting as Chadwick Boseman’s final bow.

The late Black Panther actor plays a coronet player who serves as a foil to Davis’ character, in what was his last performance before his untimely death.

Boseman died on 28 August after a four-year battle with cancer that he kept from fans and colleagues. He has been tipped for a posthumous Oscar for his performance, described by reviewers as the finest of his already illustrious career.

In a separate interview with USA Today, Davis spoke about her late co-star’s determination.

“He was thin, he was tired a lot, but there’s a lot of people who are thin and tired a lot in our profession,” she said.

“You know, it’s brutal. But there was nothing about the way he acted on set that made us believe that this was the end.”

Co-star Colman Domingo added: “Chad was very much like the roles he played. He was like Jackie Robinson and James Brown and Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa [the Black Panther].

“I understand why he played so many legends, monumental figures. Because he was cut from the same cloth. So of course he wasn’t going to go down in any ounce of weakness, because that’s not what I saw, ever. I saw a really profound, strong, loving, spirited, kind human being. And I think that’s the way he wanted to be remembered.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is streaming on Netflix now.