From her very first strut in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Viola Davis’s vision of the eponymous blues singer can see nearly anything and everything coming from a mile away. Are those prying eyes aimed at Ma and her lover, Dussie May (Taylour Paige), as she exits a pious and affluent Black Chicago inn? Why, of course. And her white manager, Irv, could he be colluding with her (also white) label executive, Sturdyvant, to control and extract all but the fibrous husk of the vibrant performer? There is, simply, no doubt. What, then, of her band’s prodigious trumpeter, Levee (Chadwick Boseman); are his attempts to usurp her bound to doom all within his reach? The answer is not a matter of if, but when. On each occasion, Ma Rainey is right, and on each occasion, she could prove as much from the start.
So goes the life of a woman conditioned to know better, an outlook Davis endeavors meticulously to bring to the film. An adaptation of the dramatist August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom touches on many themes—the exploitation of Black artists in the music industry, pre-Depression America, the blues—but because of its star actress and character, it is, at its core, a story about the act of anticipation. What does it mean when certain people learn to expect the world to move in a certain direction because they must? What does it say if they are almost always right? Whether or not the Academy Awards fully recognizes the depth and skill of Davis’s performance, the nature and worth of the portrayal is uncontestable.
Davis always has been transparent about what she hopes to bring to her characters. “Not a lot of narratives are also invested in our humanity. They’re invested in the idea of what it means to be Black,” she told Vanity Fair in December. “The white audience at the most can sit and get an academic lesson into how we are. Then they leave the movie theater and they talk about what it meant. They’re not moved by who we were.” She wants her characters to be real, to convey real lives and real thoughts.
She did as much in 2008’s Doubt, with Meryl Streep, in less than eight minutes. In the brief appearance as the mother of a boy who may be the victim of abuse by a priest at an exclusive majority white Catholic school, Davis’s character chooses to bury the revelation out of fear that it will unmask another secret, her son’s budding homosexuality. The boy’s father beats him and would, she professes, take his life if word of the potential crime leaked. “My husband will kill that child over a thing like this,” she says, in a moment of stunning clarity. The scene is horrific and wrenching and cruel and calculating. And the character’s pain, because of Davis’s portrayal, is all the more true.
In Fences, another Wilson play adapted to the big screen, Davis portrays the dutiful and observant Rose Maxson. Her husband, Troy (Denzel Washington), cheats on her, spurred by an unquenchable bitterness with his station in midcentury American life. She is, eventually, informed of the affair and its progeny. She surveys the landscape and, after weighing her options, formulates a way to make the relationship work for her. She stays, but is no longer truly Troy’s wife. She decides it is her preferred path forward in a dearth of options. And, because of Davis, her choice is all the more true.
Both of these roles earned Davis Oscar nominations, and her win in Fences served as the eighth victory for a Black actress in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Regina King raised that total to nine in 2019 with her Best Supporting Actress award for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk.) Davis is one of only 21 Black women who’ve ever been nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and only seven (including her) have won it. Only one Black woman (Halle Berry in 2002) has ever claimed the title of Best Actress in a Lead Role. The Academy is not an institution that tends to recognize artists like Davis, particularly in its biggest categories. The significance of the Oscars in American entertainment is well-trodden ground, and what it has failed—or, from a different vantage point, succeeded—in doing is similarly established. Davis’s performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the latest work to challenge this legacy; that certain stories contain little grandeur and certain artists channel little glory.
The beauty in these works is that they never, really, concern themselves with adhering to Hollywood’s rigid orthodoxy. This fact is central to why the Academy so rarely gives them their due. A restrictive club may sometimes invite an outsider. It almost never opens its doors to one who cares nothing of the establishment itself. Some art can escape this trap, focus only on its contents, and eschew thoughts of its perception without limiting its institutional standing. Other art just can’t. Call it the burden of precarity: Work created on the margins often must decide whether it aspires for mainstream acceptance, or whether it seeks existence on its own merits; it can rarely have both. A win for Davis would mean that, at least in the present, this calculus is not ironclad. Her performance is good enough to do it.
In Fences, Davis embodied the burden and belief required of domesticity, but in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom she acts as a protector. Early in the film, Irv attempts to dictate when the band will start to record. Rainey refuses to bend. “We’ll be ready to go when Madam says we’re ready to go,” she reminds him, ”and that’s the way it go around here.” She insists that her employers feature her nephew, Sylvester, on the roll call for the hit track “Black Bottom,” even though he has a speech impediment. When the men in the studio fail to provide her with a bottle of Coca-Cola, she shuts down the entire recording session. Even after their work finally ceases, she keenly refuses to sign away any song rights until she’s fully compensated. Rainey is rough, commandeering, and careful because, in this world, there are only so many ways to endure. She lives and moves with the knowledge of where and how she fits best. No one can shield her but herself, and even then it is a tenuous bet.
Davis’s eyes do most of the work to sell this vision: She rolls them in disgust, closes them in ecstasy, glares with them disparagingly, and rests them in exhaustion. It is not an accident that the last full face to appear in the film is Rainey’s, contemplatively staring ahead as she journeys back to the South. The actress’s portrayal of Rainey was not merely a matter of adhering to Wilson’s text—Davis committed to staying true to a set of lives that she could not divorce herself from. “[My] way in was by really relying on what I know about Black women who look like that,” she said of preparing for the role, “Not from what I’ve seen before in the media.”
Before she even thought to portray the songstress, Davis knew Rainey’s essence. The truth is that there are bits of her in every corner of the world. Davis knew where to look and how to bring them out. It’s this symbiosis, between the nature of the character and the expertise needed to transmit it, that gives her performance its weight. It would be a shame if the Academy pondered that marvel only to look askance once more. Then again, a savant like Ma would likely see it coming. And could prove it from the start, too.