Viola Davis scored an Oscar for her performance opposite Denzel Washington in the 2016 film adaptation of playwright August Wilson's Fences. The pair have now reunited, albeit with Washington in a producing role, for a film version of Wilson's 1984 stage hit Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. And once again, Davis looks like a shoo-in for major awards recognition.
Joining her, at least in spirit, should be Chadwick Boseman, whose final performance is a moving reminder of the depth and breadth of the Black Panther star's huge talent.
In August, the actor succumbed to the colon cancer he'd been secretly battling since 2016. His agent, Michael Greene, told The Hollywood Reporter that Boseman was in "hardcore pain" during filming, but only four people outside his family knew what he was enduring.
Boseman's mother, Carolyn, "always taught him not to have people fuss over him", Greene said. "He also felt in this business that people trip out about things, and he was a very, very private person."
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom takes place mainly in Chicago, on a hot day in 1927, at a recording studio, where the real-life "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey (Davis) and her band have assembled to make a record. Before a single note is played, her upstart trumpeter, Levee (Boseman) tries to push his ambition of updating her "jug band blues", creating tension between himself, Ma, and his bandmates Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). Ma also engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music.
As the temperature rises, literally and figuratively, stories get told, truths revealed, beliefs questioned and tested, and the raw wounds of historical trauma are laid bare.
Ma Rainey is unlike any other character in the Wilson canon, says the film’s director, George C Wolfe, during a virtual post-screening Q&A. Ma is sassy, confident and unashamedly out, and Wilson “presents her as she was, which is unapologetic about who she was”, says Wolfe.
“She is moved by an incredible sense of her own power and she doesn’t apologise for the space that she occupies as a human being and a driving creative force.”
Davis recognised her as the kind of women she’d seen growing up but who, she claims, rarely get represented as they really are in film. When she put on the padded suit to recreate Ma’s fuller figure, she says: “I was swishing my hips [and] I felt like the sexiest woman in the world. Because in my world, in my life, all the women who were bigger were the most beautiful to me. My aunt Joyce, every time I saw her coming, she was in her body, she had ownership. She had agency.”
The cast agree that Wilson, who died in 2005, presents the black experience the way black people know it. When putting together a play, he'd sometimes make actors learn long, freshly written monologues hours before going on stage. However, the words and the characters were so familiar that everything would fall smoothly into place.
“It’s already tattooed in our DNA,” says Davis. “That’s why you don’t have to try so hard to understand his characters. It’s been in us since we were born.”
With Ma-like forthrightness, she adds: "It's only when white people get a hold of our narratives and it's told through a filter and a white gaze, that all of a sudden all those things that we have such pride in become something else."
The stories that characters in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom tell each other, about rapes and lynchings and racism, draw from a shared history. But when Cutler tells one about a pastor friend, Levee angrily rejects it, and rails against God.
The character’s pain, desperation and anger come from a childhood trauma that he has never exorcised. But knowing what we now know about Boseman, it feels like the actor was channelling his own private anguish and the knowledge that he would die imminently, through the screenplay’s ferocious dialogue.
Domingo recalls Boseman suddenly halting mid-speech while shooting the scene. It was clear he was experiencing something, but no one knew what.
“Whatever was happening with Chadwick there, I think Michael, Glenn and I, we all knew we were in it. It was one of those moments where you go: ‘This is the good stuff and we’re all here. Do not step away.’”
When it appeared that Boseman was going to stop the scene, Domingo yelled at him to not give up.
“And then he explodes with all the rage and fury and questions of God’s will,” he says. After the director called cut, “we just embraced each other and sobbed. We sat silent for a good minute, all these grown men with tears in our eyes. We didn’t know what actually was in the room and what we were really dealing with, and what was the underpinning of that scene with that emotion, but it was a whisper at first and then it was a roar. So that man had this fight in him to the very end.”
Its seems obvious in hindsight, says Domingo, that Boseman was aware his time was running out and consciously building a legacy with the roles he chose. He was the real thing, adds Davis.
“We have a lot of frauds in our business: people coming out of nowhere, having never done anything, and they want to be Meryl Streep in two seconds. This man was an artist, meaning you have to let go of your ego, your vanity; you can’t mistake your presence for the event, that you have to tap into a wellspring of pain, trauma, joy, all of that, and use that as fuel with your work. He was just one of those. You can have a 50-year career and never work with a Chadwick Boseman.”
At his memorial service, says Domingo, Boseman's widow, Taylor Simone Ledward, told him and Turman her husband had been proud that Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was his final film. It's easy to believe: his dazzling, multilayered performance is a high point in a career which, although cut tragically short, will leave its mark for many years to come.
“He made such an indelible impression,” says Domingo, “that I think with this film, it seals the deal.”
The Academy may well agree.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is on Netflix from Friday, December 18