Netflix’s Oscar contender, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, delivers magnificent performances from Viola Davis, and in his final film role before his death, Chadwick Boseman.
With topical themes surrounding racism, the exploitation of Black artists and more, the most interesting theme, and one that stands out possibly the most in the Netflix adaptation is how it explores religion and questioning of faith. In the original play, August Wilson wrote the character of Levee (played by Boseman) as a denier of God and faith, stemming from traumatizing events that happened to him in his childhood that made him lose his faith in God and religion.
Just in time for the holidays and families gathering at home together to watch the film, Davis told Shadow and Act that she hopes that Boseman’s searing monologue strikes a chord in people and leads to certain conversations.
“You hope that any piece of art [sparks] honesty…that it gives people permission to spew what is in their hearts and to share it with you. The reason why I love that part of the movie [and] of the play, I love it even with Troy [in Fences] is because there is no one that I have met in my 55 years of life who has lost a child, who has been diagnosed with cancer, who has lost anyone tragically, has watched someone die…who doesn’t get mad at God. That is a human response. They question, ‘Where was God? When I got raped, where was God? When my 7-year-old daughter got murdered, where was God?’ It’s only Black people that were not allowed to feel that.
She noted how Black films typically reinforce this theme as well. “That’s why every single one of our movies has a church scene and in every single one of the movies, church always comes after someone has been hung, dismembered, all of that…but we’re still in church praising. And I’m Christian, so I’m saying this with utmost faith in Christ and God. Our job as artists is to just give you the truth. Not to give you what’s politically correct, not giving you a judgment call, not giving you a pretty image…just the stark, honest, cold, hard truth. What I hope it sparks is just honest exchanges, so people don’t have to suppress the things that they’re feeling in shame because it doesn’t fit into perfectionism or what the masses feel like we should be feeling.
“I think that it’s time enough with that, by the way, overall. But especially with Black folk, it’s time enough for that. I think we need to start leaving all of what we’re feeling, we need to get it all out like vomit,” she said. “You understand Levee. As a young boy, watching his mom get brutally raped and then watching his father get hung. You understand how he could be mad at God, even though God didn’t have anything to do [with that]. We know that, right? But you can understand from a child’s perspective, from someone’s perspective who is looking for the ultimate daddy, [the] ultimate savior, where is he? Where is it? Where is he?”
On channeling the iconic Ma Rainey, Davis had one family member she thought of in particular but made sure to note that there was only one Ma Rainey.
“My aunt Joyce,” Davis said with a hearty laugh. “She was very heavy [and] we thought she was the most beautiful woman. Me and my sisters would wait by the door when we knew she was coming. You couldn’t tell her that she couldn’t wear the latest fashion..you couldn’t tell her she wasn’t the most sexual, powerful woman in the room, I think that when we define ourselves for ourselves and it’s not through a white gaze, I think this is what you get. I didn’t want to get yet another big, Black woman who was just funny. And I think everyone feels like ‘I know this woman,’ but you don’t know this woman. I was inspired by my aunt Joyce, but Ma Rainey is not aunt Joyce. We are very specific human beings, just like white folk we are very, very specific. We have specific memories, specific desires, specifics, specific everything. And, I drew upon that because I didn’t want her to be big and apologetic for it, because that’s not what I know. And she wasn’t, she had Dussie Mae! She had two girlfriends!”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom drops on Netflix Dec. 18.
Watch the full interview below: