Ma Rainey is telling people exactly what they can do with her Black bottom.
“They don’t care nothing about me,” Ma says in the film. “All they want is my voice.”
In the George C. Wolfe-directed film, adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson from August Wilson's 1982 stage play, tensions flare as the titular singer and her band record music on a hot day inside a Chicago studio in 1927. Dubbed the Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey is boldly unapologetic, which Davis embraced when crafting her performance.
"Ma Rainey had her own autonomy, knew her worth, was comfortable with her worth (and) owned it," Davis tells USA TODAY.
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Wolfe says they had only seven photos of the real Ma, an openly queer Black woman, to use for reference, noting that there were “hundreds” of pictures of Ma’s contemporary Bessie Smith in comparison.
Donning padding to fill out her figure as well as makeup that resembled “greasepaint that was melting under the lights” and a real horse-hair wig “felt liberating” to Davis, who transforms into Ma with the help of costume designer Ann Roth.
“I felt more sexual. I felt more empowered to own the room,” she says. “I felt more like I was transforming into her and it gave me über permission to leave every bit of Viola behind.”
Once she became Ma Rainey physically, Davis could become Ma, the performer. Davis sings one song, “Those Dogs Of Mine,” herself (soul singer Maxayn Lewis is behind the rest of the vocals).
In the film's opening scene, fans come in droves to see Ma perform under a tent in front of a rollicking crowd in Barnesville, Georgia.
“That tent scene was probably the most unbelievable experience in my entire career,” Davis says. “To walk up to that tent with all those haystacks, and those extras dressed in period costumes with their popcorn, screaming at the top of their lungs, the band on the stage, and then me performing – it was time travel.”
Davis acknowledges how the sexual agency in Ma Rainey’s music serves as a precursor to modern music, including this summer’s chart-topping song “WAP.”
“I'm a fan of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. I think every generation has a problem with music being overly sexualized based on (ideas from) the generation before,” Davis says. “But there is liberation in taking our sexuality and not letting someone else define it for us on their terms.”
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As the blues swirls throughout the story, freedom and respect are at its heart, tenets embodied expertly by Chadwick Boseman as fiery horn player Levee in his final film role.
Levee clashes with Ma and his bandmates, trombonist Cutler (Colman Domingo), bass player Slow Drag (Michael Potts) and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman). Intense conversations on faith, race and childhood experiences pulse through the studio's basement as the band verbally tussles.
As the afternoon goes on, Levee fidgets with a door in the basement, eventually so frustrated he breaks through. He’s met with a literal wall, though its purpose is metaphorical, the director says.
“It's a metaphor for racism in America,” Wolfe says. “You break through the door and on the other side of the door is a wall, just at the point where the character desperately and emotionally needed relief, a sense of possibility.”
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The film, produced by Denzel Washington, is set almost 100 years ago, yet feels achingly poignant today.
When Ma Rainey gets into a fender bender, a police officer listens only after her white record execs Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) step into the fray. Irvin and Sturdyvant later attempt to cut Ma's nephew Sylvester's pay (Dusan Brown) and swindle Levee out of ownership of his music. Insert any of these scenes in 2020 and they're not out of place.
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Domingo, who has seen the “struggle” play out in his 30-year career, hopes the film will continue to “move the needle on our humanity and on our fight for proper representation of being heard, or being seen as human and complex.”
“When you look within the Black community privately, there's a lot of Ma Raineys,” Davis says.
“White people have been in charge of our images on screen and narratives. In all of those images and stories, we don't have our agency. We don't have any sense of owning our power and our worth,” Davis continues, adding that white creators behind these stories “don't have any understanding of who we are outside of them.”
Even as a top talent for her record label, Ma is a Black woman who has no choice but to demand what she deserves, whether it's a requested Coca Cola or adequate pay. No one else will do it for her.
“Ma’s power comes from where my mom's power comes from, where my mother-in-law's power came from. And that is either we have the power, or we die,” Davis says. “The only thing Ma had in her life – the only thing that she lived for that made her worthy – was her voice.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Netflix's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom': Viola Davis sings, transforms