Viola Davis stars as the Mother of Blues Ma Rainey in Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” adapted from the play by August Wilson. The film co-stars Chadwick Boseman as an ambitious trumpeter Levee in what will now be known as his final film performance.
The synopsis, according to IMDb:
Chicago, 1927. A recording session. Tensions rise between Ma Rainey, her ambitious horn player and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues”. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play.
Boseman passed away from complications from colon cancer in August 2020. His passing came as shock to the world, as no one knew he had been diagnosed with colon cancer four years prior. Davis had no idea Boseman had cancer while shooting.
“I’m looking back at how tired he always seemed,” she told The New York Times. “I look at his beautiful, unbelievable team that was meditating over him and massaging him, and I now realize everything they were trying to infuse in him to keep him going and working at his optimal level. And he received it.”
Davis tweeted “it was an honor” working besides him and to get to know him. The two acclaimed actors also co-starred in “Get on Up” in 2014.
Davis furthermore spoke about the parallels between Boseman and his character Levee in the upcoming film.
“I think a lot of times, people look at someone’s life backwards,” she continued with The New York Times. “Now we have the unfortunate knowledge that Chadwick succumbed to cancer at 43, but really, Levee represents so many Black men living in America. What we’re constantly navigating on a day-to-day basis is the trauma of our past — we’re trying to heal from it, we’re even trying to understand that it’s there, and we’re negotiating that with our dreams and who we want to become.”
Denzel Washington produced the film adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” With Washington attached as a producer and acclaimed actors Davis and Boseman starring, the film adaptation is already garnering Oscar buzz. Though, Boseman isn’t only in the Oscar conversation for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” He also garnered praise for Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” in 2020.
Davis’ Oscar narrative involves her physically transforming into the blues legend Ma Rainey, which could lead to her fourth nomination. She previously won Best Supporting Actress for another film adaptation based on a Wilson play—“Fences”—in 2017. Washington also scored a Best Actor nod for his lead performance in the film.
It’s not uncommon for actors to de-glam or go through physical transformations for playing real-life figures or iconic characters from novels, plays or musicals. Davis wanted to gain weight to play Ma Rainey.
“I tried to gain as much [weight] as I could but [Ma Rainey] was really big, close to 300 pounds,” Davis said via a conversation during the Toronto International Film Festival, according to Indiewire. “I got close to 200. Ann Roth, the great costume designer, she said, ‘Viola, what body do you want to look like?’ And the body that I loved — once again I grew up with a lot of big woman that I thought were the most beautiful woman in the word. So for me it was Aretha Franklin. I wanted that body.”
Davis told The New York Times it was “fan-friggin-fantastic” to embody the legend, and streaming-goers will be able to watch Davis and Boseman shine starting on Friday, Dec. 18 on Netflix.