Ahead of the December 18 release of the film adaptation of master dramatist August Wilson’s first play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Netflix offered a press sneak peek. Starring Oscar and Tony winner Viola Davis as the “mother of blues” Ma Rainey with the late Chadwick Boseman as ambitious trumpeter Levee, the starry movie is directed by Tony winner George C. Wolfe and adapted by Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Tony nominee Colman Domingo, Broadway regular Michael Potts and Emmy winner Glynn Turman are also featured in the cast.
At the virtual preview, Wolfe introduced five clips, presented some of its toe-tapping music from Branford Marsalis and engaged in a lively conversation with Davis, moderated by Nelson George. Wolfe called Wilson’s 1984 play a “brilliant piece of writing with wonderful, complicated characters.” He also noted that the piece is an anomaly in the playwright’s Century Cycle, in which Wilson chronicled the African-American experience in the 20th century: It’s the only work not set in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh and the only one featuring a famous person.
The film shows Ma Rainey in her exalted status in her hometown of Barnesville, Georgia and her treatment in Chicago as she travels there for a recording session. “It became important to embody Chicago, a promised land but a hard and brutal place,” Wolfe said about the setting, noting that Santiago-Hudson changed the season from winter to summer to show the impact of heat on the story’s tension. Wolfe noted that, “Ma Rainey is a metaphor for America. How can it have a future until it comes to terms with its complicated past?”
Davis, who made her Broadway debut in Wilson’s Seven Guitars and won Tony Awards for her performances in his plays King Headley II and Fences, didn’t originally see herself taking on the role of the blues legend. “I decided to play her because I didn’t think I could play her,” Davis said, adding that working closely with the film’s Tony-winning costume designer Ann Roth helped her find her footing with the character. “I was going for the body structure of my aunt Joyce,” Davis said. “Other than my mom, she was the first beautiful woman that I knew growing up. Once I had that padding, I felt freer and very cute, by the way…To play her as she is—that’s how you honor her.”
Ma Rainey is Boseman’s final film. Wolfe praised his outstanding work ethic, while Davis, who previously played Boseman’s mother in the James Brown biopic Get On Up, felt maternal love for the actor: “Not to compete with Chadwick’s mother, but he was my baby,” she said. “Chadwick was an artist…For someone so young, it was incredible to watch.”
Watch the trailer Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom below!