In 2012, Viola Davis came so close to following in Halle Berry’s (“Monster’s Ball,” 2002) footsteps as the second Black Best Actress Academy Award winner for “The Help” (2012), but ultimately fell to “The Iron Lady’s” Meryl Streep. The actress did, however, win Best Supporting Actress in 2017 for the film version of the August Wilson play “Fences.” And this year, she could finally bag Best Actress for playing the title character in another Wilson adaptation, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Directed by George C. Wolfe and written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the Netflix release chronicles a chaotic recording session of Ma Rainey‘s album in 1927 Chicago. As the so-called “Mother of the Blues,” Davis appears like we’ve never seen her before: her face caked in greasy-looking makeup, her body shimmering in sweat, wearing gold prosthetic teeth and body padding (on top of the weight Davis herself gained). The actress fully and believably becomes Ma, completely altering the way in which she carries herself and transforming every room into which she walks with her self-confident swagger and all-pervasive magisterial presence.
In the movie, the actress has three musical numbers: two in which she is dubbed by soul singer Maxayn Lewis, “Deep Moaning Blues” – which opens the movie – and the titular, climactic “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and one in which she sings herself, the brief “Those Dogs of Mine.” Even when she doesn’t do her own singing, she impresses with convincing lip-syncing work, while still being fully immersed in, and in touch with, Ma’s music. Her entire body language changes, radiating both ebullience and self-assurance, as though with every shake of the hip she slaps away any sense of self-doubt and reminds you of her unwavering authority. With her palpable energy, Davis encapsulates the immense joy with which music fills up Ma.
Much of the impact of her performance ultimately rests on how well she operates within the parameters of this dialogue-driven play adaptation. She’s done it before with “Fences,” both on stage – for which she won a Tony Award in 2010 – and on the big screen, but “Ma Rainey” is a different playground, as Ma’s dialogue consists of far more tonal layers than that of her “Fences” character Rose Maxson. Davis, however, is up to the task. She’s in complete control of the script’s theatrical nature and fully aware of when to infuse comedy, when to turn up the sass and when to dial it all down a notch – and sometimes even when to juggle all three.
While it’s certainly gratifying to see Ma spit out orders left and right, especially to her White collaborators, Davis reminds you that this comes at the hands of the little respect an openly bisexual, unapologetically assertive Black woman is afforded in 1920s United States. “They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they want is my voice,” Davis utters in a pivotal monologue, in which Ma addresses how her White executives see her as exclusively a commercial opportunity. Cognizant of the power she wields as a virtuoso, she leverages her talent to set the terms. This includes ensuring that, at the end of the day, all her band members and her nephew – who speaks the opening words of her album – are properly and amply paid for their work.
A real gut punch, Davis’ final look into the camera captures the rage and frustration that’s been simmering below Ma’s surface throughout the movie. She is aware that the signing of her contract means she’ll be stripped of the power she’s wielded over her White executives and thus, over her own work.
So far, Davis has already reaped Critics Choice, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards bids and is, according to our collective odds, in second place at the Oscars behind the surging Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”). Rounding out the Best Actress lineup are Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”), Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) and Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) in fifth.
Also shortlisted in 2009 for her featured role in “Doubt,” Davis is thus poised to become the most nominated Black actress in Oscar history — a title she currently shares with “The Help” co-star Octavia Spencer. Not only does she have the head-to-toe transformation working in her favor, but the fact that her role and the movie as a whole still speak to our current times. After all, Davis’ 2018 comments about Hollywood’s gender and race wage gaps just went viral last summer, reflecting the timeliness of the movie’s core subject matter.
As of this writing, “Ma Rainey” is forecast to snag eight total bids, including Best Picture, while we predict wins for actor (Chadwick Boseman), costume design and makeup and hairstyling. Given that the entire motion picture academy votes for the ultimate winners, this type of across-the-board support would only further bolster Davis’ chances.
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