Viola Davis wanted to strike the right note with her portrayal of groundbreaking blues singer Ma Rainey.
The Oscar-winning actress aimed to bring authenticity to her performance in the new movie “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” as a way of honoring a larger-than-life artist who many people may not know.
“I felt a responsibility to portray her honestly, not in a way that would make her palatable,” Davis told the Daily News. “I didn’t want to reduce any aspect of her life because people just didn’t want to see it, or it’s too much, it’s not attractive, it’s not whatever, because in doing that, I would be dishonoring her. That’s already what history threatened to do to her, and actually did do to her, was render her extinct.”
Nicknamed the Mother of the Blues, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was one of the genre’s first professional singers who influenced generations of artists with her powerhouse vocals, smooth lyrics and fiery personality.
The new film, which premieres today on Netflix, is set in Chicago in 1927 and centers on a tumultuous recording session involving the no-nonsense Rainey, her controlling white managers and a band featuring a headstrong trumpeter named Levee, portrayed by the late Chadwick Boseman.
To prepare, Davis searched for as much information as possible about Rainey, who died in 1939.
“There are only seven photos that exist of her,” Davis, 55, said. “I tried to gather everything from what people said about her, how she was described as a mouthful of gold teeth, always dripping with sweat, makeup that looked like grease paint that was melting off of her face, wigs that were made of horsehair. She was bisexual. So that was my way in.
“My other way in was by really relying on what I know about Black women who look like that. Not from what I’ve seen before in the media, because what I’ve seen before has sort of been trickled down through the white gaze, and a lot of those women just are reduced to being big, fat and funny. I did not want to reduce Ma to that.”
The film, based on a play by August Wilson, marks Boseman’s final performance before his August death at age 43 following a private four-year battle with colon cancer.
Davis believes the movie “definitely takes on an extra importance” as the “Black Panther” star’s last role.
“But (his performance) really would’ve been just as powerful otherwise. It’s just a great performance,” Davis said.
“The thing that I will miss about Chadwick and his contribution is that he was truly, in every sense of the word, an artist. Even though he was young and buoyant and all of that, he was an old soul in terms of how he lived his life with the intentional purpose of integrity and authenticity. He literally was not interested in bringing Black Panther to the set of ‘Ma Rainey.’ He was leaving Chadwick at the door.”
Davis and Boseman generated early Oscar buzz with their performances in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which was produced by Denzel Washington.
“The fact that she contributed so much to the music business, she’s called the Mother of the Blues, she influenced all the artists who came after her ... yet no one knows who she is,” Davis said of Rainey. “Her contribution, in my opinion, is her work and her level of understanding her worth.”