Viola Davis poised to make Oscar history with ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

After teaching us “How to Get Away with Murder,” Viola Davis is singing the blues as the titular character in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a stage-to-screen adaptation of August Wilson‘s 1984 play of the same name, which starts streaming on Netflix on Dec. 18.

Written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe, “Ma Rainey’s” centers on a planned recording session in 1927 Chicago that falls behind schedule when Ma Rainey, the iconic “Mother of the Blues,” arrives late to the studio. As they await her advent, the singer’s band members engage in a lively conversation, with temperatures rising between the young hot-headed trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) and two veteran members, Cutler (Colman Domingo) and Toledo (Glynn Turman). When a fiery, fearless Ma finally enters, she clashes with her enraged white producers and uber-passionate trumpeter, who has an eye for her girlfriend.

An Emmy and a two-time Tony winner, Davis struck gold with another film adaptation of one of Wilson’s plays, 2016’s “Fences,” for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. This comes after she had contended in that same category “Doubt” (2008) and in lead for “The Help” (2011). If she bags her fourth career bid for “Ma Rainey’s” next year, she will make history as the most nominated black actress in Oscar history.

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At the moment, Davis shares bragging rights with Octavia Spencer, who triumphed for “The Help” in Best Supporting Actress and received two additional nominations in that same category for “Hidden Figures” (2016) and “The Shape of Water” (2017). Joining them as the only black actresses to have earned more than one acting bid is Whoopi Goldberg, who was shortlisted for her lead performance in “The Color Purple” (1985) and featured role in “Ghost” (1990), for which she won.

Ten other black women have contended for Best Actress, beginning with Dorothy Dandridge (“Carmen Jones,” 1954). She was followed by Diana Ross (“Lady Sings the Blues,” 1972), Cicely Tyson (“Sounder,” 1972), Diahann Carroll (“Claudine,” 1974), Angela Bassett (“What’s Love Got to Do with It,” 1993), Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball,” 2001), Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious,” 2009), Quvenzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” 2012), Ruth Negga (“Loving,” 2016) and Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet,” 2019).

If Davis were to end up reigning victorious, she would become just the second black actress after Berry to win a lead actress Oscar, and the first to win statuettes in both lead and supporting. As of this writing, she currently tops our combined Oscar odds, where she is trailed by Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”), Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”), Amy Adams (“Hillbilly Elegy”) and Kate Winslet (“Ammonite”).

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