We all know Viola Davis for her stunning performances in the dramatic film The Help and the TV drama How to Get Away with Murder, but there is so much more to her burgeoning body of work – both on stage and screen.
In fact, she has achieved the “triple crown of acting” for winning an Academy Award, a primetime Emmy Award, and two Tonys.
Now, the 55-year-old South Carolina native is making movie magic in the new Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson, earning her a Golden Globe nomination and a great deal of early buzz as the award season nears.
When actor-director-producer Denzel Washington went to secure the rights to Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize plays from Wilson’s widow, including Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the actor already knew he wanted Davis by his side to make these characters come alive, and his instincts were clearly on the mark.
Davis won the 2010 Tony Award for best actress for playing Rose Maxson in the Broadway Revival of Wilson’s play Fences,and an Academy Award for best supporting actress for reviving this role in the film adaptation.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom celebrates the transformative power of the blues and the artists who refused to let society’s prejudices dictate their worth. The movie, produced by Washington, stars Davis along with Taylor Paige, Glynn Turman, and the late Chadwick Boseman.
The movie takes place during Jim Crowe America and we find the legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey, making the rules for her jazz career.
Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in the 1920’s Chicago as a band of musicians await the trailblazing performer, the legendary. Late to the session, the fearless, fiery Ma Rainey engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over the control of her music.
As the band waits in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious cornet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) — who has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend and is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry — spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives.
“When you have somebody as smart, ferocious, and fearless as Viola playing Ma Rainey, the character resonates with that ferocity and fearlessness, and emotional rawness and supreme intelligence,” explained the film’s director George C. Wolfe. You’re casting somebody who has all those qualities in abundance.”
“Viola brilliantly lived in all the corners and crevices and cracks of Ma’s veracity and vulnerability, and no line, no pause, no look, no moment goes uninvested when it comes to Viola.” Wolfe added.
Washington describes Davis as “one of the greats of all time. It’s been an honor for me to be able to help in a small way,” Washington added, “and find roles that give all of us the chance to see how brilliant she is!”
Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2012 and 2017. In 2017, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 2020, the New York Times ranked Davis ninth on its list of “The 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century.”
Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon, are the loving parents of Genesis, their 10- year-old daughter, and the founders of JuVee Productions.
She is also widely recognized for her advocacy and support of human rights, equal rights, and empowerment for women, as well as her No Kid Hungry philanthropy effort to make sure that children do not have food insecurity issues.
Davis recently shared her remarkable journey on and off the stage and screen, how she has accepted her difficult childhood, current family love, and celebrates her success.
Monsters & Critics: Viola, please talk about portraying Ma Rainey; the jazz legend, a successful entrepreneur, and a black woman who is used to obeying no one’s rules but her own. Talk about stepping into Ma’s shoes.
Viola Davis: I hadn’t initially envisioned myself in the role, but I quickly began to see the complexities inherent within Ma Rainey and a deep emotional bond with this character grew. The more time I spent getting to know Ma Rainey, the more I recognized just how ahead of her time that she was as a singer and entrepreneur.
M&C: In what way?
Viola Davis: First of all, she knew her worth and she knew how to negotiate her worth. Ma Rainey knew how valuable her music was and how much her management and record label needed her. She understood it and she was unapologetic about it. I believe that makes her very much a liberated and modern woman.
M&C: What struck you about this jazz legend?
Viola Davis: Ma Rainey was also absolutely unapologetic about her sexuality. She was incredibly authentic and tapped into her desires and her impulses. I loved that about her. There was something about that that I just wanted to channel because I feel like sometimes, I apologize for my power. To be able to play and channel someone who does not do this became like an elixir.
M&C: Talk about your strong connection with George C. Wolfe, who directed you in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Viola Davis: He is a talented director and writer, who authored the play A Colored Museum. It’s an awesome play in which the characters explore all the stereotypes that are put on people of color throughout the years. They sort of bust out of these 11 exhibits. At first, you think you are seeing a stereotype, but then you are laughing and then all of a sudden there is reality, and they bust out and drop some serious wisdom.
M&C: Please tell me more about this?
Viola Davis: There is this character named Topsy, who imagines herself at a party with Malcolm X and Eartha Kitt, and she was in a room with Martin Luther King.
She was just imagining this party and she says it got so wild that the floor started shaking and moving and all of a sudden it just lifted up and it started just twirling round and round and the roof blew off the house. She goes on to say that “it’s all inside here, connecting me to everything that ever was and that ever will be.”
Topsy ends by saying, “So, don’t try to label or define me because I’m not what I was 10 years ago or 20 minutes ago; I’m all of that and then some. Whereas I can’t live inside yesterday’s pain and I can’t live without it.”
M&C: You speak candidly about your life and humble early beginnings, please tell me about this.
Viola Davis: Yes, I talk about my foundation and my background, and how I started. I speak my truth every chance I get, and I will continue doing so. I always feel that I am trying to heal my younger self; that little girl who grew up in poverty, who didn’t have enough to eat, and who grew up in abuse. She follows me everywhere I go.
M&C: How does that inform your career and your life?
Viola Davis: I want to honor her with everything that I do. I’m always trying to heal that little girl, and she’s always with me. People ask, ‘Why are you trying to heal her, she was pretty tough. She survived. She doesn’t need healing, it’s the 55-year-old Viola who needs healing.’
I see the younger girl wanting to be embraced and squeal in delight about my future and all my possibilities. So, it’s about reconciliation and restoration. It’s about restoring the past and who we are going forward. I think the key is that it is about restoring the past and reconciling who we are.
M&C: Why is this so important to you?
Viola Davis: I think it’s an incredible metaphor for who we are as women. We have a very specific and challenging history as women. We have a history of when we were not valued. Of course, there were always expectations to the rule; there was always the woman who spoke her mind and said what she meant and knew her worth.
M&C: Who has inspired you over the years?
Viola Davis: I have had to rely on supernatural mentors; people who knew the road, who had gone before me, and saw the possibilities in me before I could see them in myself. People like my mother, Mary Alice Davis, my sister, Diane, and the extraordinary actress, Miss Cicely Tyson, [who recently passed away].
My sister asked me the most powerful question when I was five or six years old – “What do you want to be?” Because I never knew that I could create the answer, they all helped me to ask, “What do you want your life to look like?”
M&C: On a more personal note, what is the best way to get to know you?
Viola Davis: If you want to know me don’t ask me what I eat or how I comb in my hair. Instead, ask me what I live for. I will tell you that I live for honoring my worth. Every day I have to balance my life with what I have in my hands to give, to create, and also to fight all of the things that were injected into me as a child in terms of challenging my worth and my value.
At some point, I know there will be a beautiful time period where they all mesh together, and when I fully understand that I absolutely am worthy. I’m a woman trying to live a life bigger than herself and trying to go through this radical transformation from growing up defined by an environment where I was told I wasn’t pretty and I wasn’t good enough. I am calling on women to come face-to-face with themselves and ask one question: ‘What do you want your life to look like?’
M&C: What do you see as our collective future?
Viola Davis: We have to harness the past and honor the women (like Ma Rainey) who dug their feet in the ground and had both the courage and the guts and endured the pain. And because of them the generation after them lived better for it, and they passed the baton.
The film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is currently streaming on Netflix.