The Powerhouse: With her record-breaking Best Actress nod, Viola Davis proves she's Oscar royalty
All she wanted was a Coca-Cola. In one of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom's most telling scenes, the titular singer — played with fierce, queenly self-possession by Viola Davis — demands a cold soda from the white producers so eager to harness her sound on a sweltering Chicago day circa 1927. It would have set them back a nickel at the corner store; if they don't get right with Ma real quick, it's about to cost them a lot more.
"From the moment you see her to the moment she leaves the screen, she is hustling for her worth," Davis says of her real-life muse, once anointed Mother of the Blues and then largely lost to history until Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson reimagined her on stage in 1984. "She is demanding it. She's not begging for it.... But the deeper sense of that is 'Value me, see me, I exist. I'm a human being too, I deserve respect.'"
A heart attack would fell Rainey in her 50s, and obscurity swallowed the rest. Now 55, the actress portraying her in director George C. Wolfe's acclaimed Netflix adaptation hardly foretells the same fate: The winner of an Oscar, an Emmy, and two Tonys, she is the rare Hollywood player whose name evokes both near-universal acclaim and commercial viability. Costars like Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington regularly sing her praises; The New York Times recently named her No. 9 on its list of the 25 best actors working today.
But Davis is also deeply aware of the struggle it took to get there — much of her mainstream success arrived, improbably, after age 40 — and how far the business still has to go when it comes to not only recognizing Black talent but exploring their stories on screen in meaningful, nonreductive ways. "That big, loud, bodacious woman who comes in at the ninth hour and gives her one-line zingers has become a caricature, a stereotype," Davis says, snapping her fingers in exasperated imitation. "She makes everyone laugh and she walks off, but we don't know who she is."
Ultimately, Rainey's offers only tantalizing hints of Ma's backstory, with many of the script's more expansive monologues resting in the hands of her foil and bandmate, the fatefully tempestuous trumpet player Levee — a role for which Chadwick Boseman is almost certainly and deservedly guaranteed a posthumous Academy Award come April 25. Davis is quick to credit Boseman, whom she also appeared with in the 2014 James Brown biopic Get on Up, for the man he was on and off set: "You know what? If I were there to draw a picture of Chadwick, I would have a halo in the back of his head. That's how absolutely extraordinarily unique and angelic he was, and how pure about his art."
Though the movie's contained timeline (nearly all of it takes place over the course of a single day) and multifaceted cast may land far from traditional biography, it's a testament to Davis' own formidable presence how wholly and magnetically her Ma registers on screen. As she speaks from home in Los Angeles, her face scrubbed clean of makeup and her small frame swallowed in a plush cream-colored bathrobe, it's almost impossible to connect the thoughtful, diminutive figure in the Zoom lens with Rainey's outsize persona, a gale force of smeared greasepaint and bravado, hips and bosom filled out to regal proportions and voice a throaty juke-joint rumble.
In fact, Davis, whose stage career found root in Wilson's storied Century Cycle of plays, including the role that would lead to her 2017 Oscar for Fences, initially tried hard not to take the part. ("I just didn't see myself," she admits. "I saw a larger-stature woman who sang, who'd been around for a while.") Thankfully Wolfe and her Fences costar Washington, who produced Rainey's, harbored no such doubts; legendary costume designer Ann Roth, whose work spans from Midnight Cowboy to Mamma Mia!, helped bridge the physical gap with horsehair wigs, gold-capped teeth, and clever padding beneath the bedazzled Jazz Age finery.
What proved much scanter was historical record: Only seven still photographs of Rainey survive, and a scattered jumble of audio recordings. "Still now in 2021, we know more about Bessie Smith. We know more about Billie Holiday, we know more about Ethel Waters, but we know nothing about Ma Rainey," Davis laments. "She was the first, and yet she basically was invisible."
Finding unsung stories to tell has become a kind of signature for the star, one born out of both frustration and necessity. That's why you'll find her not only in the prestige dramas that shaped her as a young graduate just out of Juilliard but in less expected projects like the zingy feminist heist flick Widows; 2016's winking, blood-spattered Suicide Squad (she'll reprise the role in this year's sequel); and the risqué Shonda Rhimes legal thriller How to Get Away With Murder, which ran for six seasons on ABC and earned her a landmark Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
"You know I had nine failed pilots, right?" Davis asks with a bittersweet smile. "I was 49 when I got Murder. The Help did a lot of work. Doubt did a lot of work. Antwone Fisher did a lot of work. But it was a network TV show that put me on the map.... It's just heartbreaking as a woman when you're not seen as pretty and when you're not seen as young. When you're darker than a paper bag, no one sees you. They just don't. If I want any kind of role that is deeper, more complicated, more specific, then I have to look for it. And once I look for it, trust me, I have to develop it. Very much so."
To that end, she has several projects coming via her production company JuVee, including The Woman King — a "Black female Braveheart" helmed by The Old Guard's Gina Prince-Bythewood — and Showtime's The First Lady anthology, in which she'll portray Michelle Obama alongside the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer (as Betty Ford) and Gillian Anderson (Eleanor Roosevelt). Self-made women, warriors, and American royalty? You might say there are some roles she was born to play.
For more on the 2021 Oscars race, order the May issue of Entertainment Weekly — with covers featuring Chloé Zhao, Viola Davis, and Regina King — or find it on newsstands beginning April 16, and keep up with EW's Awardist online. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
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