Viola Davis is the first Black actress to win a Tony, Primetime Emmy and Oscar. Could a Grammy be in her future to complete that EGOT? On the basis of this morning’s Netflix presentation of five clips from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, its December 18 release of the film version of August Wilson’s first play in his Century Cycle of 10 plays, it could be possible. Although as director George C. Wolfe explained in a 40-minute conversation with Davis and moderator Nelson George, the musical aspects of this great blues story set in 1924 Chicago was indeed a collaboration led by the great Branford Marsalis, and included bringing in another singer to augment Davis’ own vocals on some of the songs.
That said, another Oscar nomination seems entirely possible for Davis, who won her Supporting Actress Academy Award, and a Tony on Broadway, for her performance opposite Denzel Washington in the film and stage versions of Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences. It would be rare for an actor to win a pair of Oscars in film versions of the same playwright’s work, but this could be an exception based on the footage shown. Davis clearly inhabits the spirit and fight of the real Ma Rainey, who took her dominant Southern-based jug band sound and moved North to Chicago in the ’20s. The film is set near the end of her career while she is recording an album with, among others, the great Coronet player Levee who is portrayed by the late Chadwick Boseman in what looks like a role that could land him a rare posthumous nomination — though whether lead or supporting remains to be determined. Ma Rainey is clearly the focus, at least without seeing the entire film in my case.
Actually today’s preview and virtual conversation was initially set for August 31 but was postponed after Boseman’s tragic death from cancer (he was not scheduled to participate) was announced the previous Friday. Both the Tony-winning director and Davis paid tribute this morning to the actor and his performance in the film.
Davis, who played his mother in the James Brown biopic Get On Up, felt a definite closeness to him beyond most co-stars she has had. “Not to compete with Chadwick’s mother, but he was my baby,” she said. “Chadwick was an artist. That is just what he was… he loved it, he demanded it in every single way. For someone so young it was incredible to watch.”
In addition to showing extended scenes from the movie, Netflix also debuted the trailer today. Check it out here:
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was the very first play Wilson wrote in 1984, and also the only one of his 10-part Century Cycle not set in Pittsburgh. Washington has vowed to bring the eight other unfilmed Wilson plays to screen adaptations in a deal that was originally set for HBO but moved to Netflix. This is the first of those, and Davis said she actually resisted the idea of playing the title role in this one. She had first seen it at the Trinity Playhouse and praised the late Barbara Meek’s work.
“I didn’t think I could play her. I always see myself at 28,” she laughed, while admitting she is actually 55 now and that in terms of Ma Rainey she actually is the right age. Once into the project she realized it was the right decision. “It shows what Black life was like in 1924, how it was informing our relationships,” she said, emphasizing the story mixes hope with the trauma of the past for Black people. “You try to take that emptiness and fill it up with something.”
For Wolfe, the play and now film version shows what happened during the migration from the South to the North, in this case Chicago, where Ma Rainey suddenly had to negotiate with the white power structure. “It became important to embody Chicago, a promised land but a hard and brutal place,” he said. Wolfe and his writer Ruben Santiago Hudson changed the setting from winter to summer in order to show the impact of sheer heat on the recording session the day it took place. For him, the words Wilson wrote have a much larger meaning. “It is a metaphor for America. How can it have a future until it comes to terms with its complicated past.”
Davis praised Washington’s efforts to bring all of Wilson’s work to a larger audience. “I thank God for Denzel. This has been about 40 years in the making to bring this all to the screen… It is an enormous undertaking. It can’t be in the hands of anyone who doesn’t have the courage. August lets us talk as people of color,” she said.
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