Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman are showstoppers in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom trailer
On Monday, Netflix released the trailer for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the highly anticipated film adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name.
The film stars Viola Davis in the titular role, inspired by the real Ma Rainey who reigned as the Mother of the Blues in the 1920s. Set during that same time period in Chicago, the movie follows the singer’s Black band members and white record producers as they wait for the demanding diva to arrive and record some songs.
Once Ma Rainey arrives, everything becomes “a chess game,” or “a game of power and value” as Davis described it to EW. The singer particularly butts heads with her young, tenacious trumpeter Levee, played by the late Chadwick Boseman, who sneakily tries to undermine her in an attempt to modernize her work.
In a virtual press conference where Davis and the film’s director George C. Wolfe were in conversation with author Nelson George, the Oscar-winning actress reflects on the dynamic between Ma Rainey and Levee, noting “What's going on with her in general is she's at the end of her career, and I don't think people know the power of that, when there's one thing that defines you. It's like the old Cherokee birth blessing that says, 'May you live long enough to know why you were born,' and Ma Rainey definitely, her mark, her sense of herself in the world is through her music. That's what made her somebody, and all of the sudden she's at the end of it.”
When someone like her manager Irvin, played by Jeremy Shamos, encourages her to adapt to the changing times, with the rise of artists like Bessie Smith, “there's a sense of death in there, but it's really sort of trapped in that, and me as an actor, I had to find a way of playing that without letting it overwhelm the power, her power,” explains Davis.
Part of that power, and why Davis eventually was took on the role, was that Ma Rainey was an openly queer woman, as seen in the film by the way she embraces her young companion Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). “I loved her unapologetic nature even with her sexuality, with herself in general because I see that so many people, even today, that little sense of apologizing when you don't feel like you fit, and I don't get a sense of that with Ma Rainey, which makes her really, really attractive.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second major film adaptation of a Wilson play, the first being Fences in 2016, which won Davis the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Both projects were executive produced by Denzel Washington, who has made it his mission to adapt all 10 plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle, which sought to depict the Black experience at different decades through the 20th century. “I thank god for Denzel because I know it was probably well over 40 years in the making, bringing August's work to the screen,” says Davis. “And I think that Denzel is the sort of conduit that can do it because he absolutely honors August and his work. And you know, sometimes that doesn't always happen. Sometimes people look at the work and say 'Oh I love it, but let me shift this, shift that,' and then there's little left of that person's legacy. I don't see that with Denzel.”
She adds that, “with all of August's work there are huge speeches, there are enormous character arcs. It is an enormous undertaking that— it can't be in the hands of anyone who doesn't have courage alright? So Denzel was just the man to do it. if you've met him, if you've been in the presence of Denzel in any way, he is his own man. He beats to the rhythm of his own drum, which is what August did. It's like sometimes the writer meets the actor meets the director and it becomes this perfect love marriage and that's what this is.”
Wolfe echoes Davis’s sentiment, especially with regards to her and Boseman as the leads. “When Denzel and I were talking about casting, we talked about Viola, and then we talked about Chadwick. We thought that it would just be a brilliant, brilliant idea to offer him the role, and then fortunately he said yes.” Reflecting on the production process with Boseman, which included two weeks of rehearsals, the director shares “I feel so blessed because everybody in the cast is just exceptional and Chadwick put his entire being into Levee, and in some respects Levee sort of demands that simply because of the Herculean scale of the role. I mean it's a phenomenal character, and he put every ounce of his energy, heart, and passion into it, and I remember literally once a week while we were filming, Chadwick would come over to me and say 'I'm so glad we had that two weeks of rehearsal, lord Jesus!'”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 18. Watch the trailer above.