Viola Davis Didn’t See Herself Playing Ma Rainey

Only a few actors in the history of Hollywood have ever achieved the Triple Crown of Acting, which consists of an Emmy Award, a Tony Award, and an Academy Award. Viola Davis made history in 2017 as the first Black actor to be on that list, as well as the youngest.

Davis’ newest role is playing Ma Rainey, beloved by many as the Mother of the Blues, in the Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Viola Davis
Viola Davis | Alberto E. Rodriguez / Staff

Ma Rainey was a complex character

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on a 1982 play of the same name, is a biopic that attempts to humanize this often forgotten character. Rainey was born in Georgia in 1886 and began her career as a young performer around the turn of the 20th century.

Rainey rose to recognition in the early 1900s as singer Madame Gertrude Rainey. Rainey once claimed that she discovered “blues music” when she was in Missouri one night performing and a girl introduced her to a sad song about a man leaving a woman. Rainey learned the lyrics of the song and added it to her performances, and she claimed she created the term “blues” when people asked what kind of song she was singing.

Rainey broke barriers at the time as a Black woman with her kind of star power. She was also a trailblazer at the time because she was openly bisexual and often sang about her love for both men and women.

"Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey poses for a portrait circa 1923 | Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
“Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey poses for a portrait circa 1923 | Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Viola Davis wanted to do Ma Rainey justice

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom looks at how Rainey was taken advantage of, taken for granted, and forgotten to history over time. Her recording career took off in 1923 when she signed a deal with Paramount Records; the following year, she recorded songs with jazz legend Louis Armstrong. In one scene from the movie, Davis captured perfectly how record label executives only cared about Rainey’s voice and not her as a person.

Davis is hyper-aware of Rainey’s cultural influence and wanted to make sure she did right by Rainey when playing her on screen. She recently sat down for an interview with 60 Minutes and discussed what it was like working on the movie.

movie star Viola Davis
Viola Davis | Rachel Murray/Getty Images for L’Oréal Paris

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Viola Davis couldn’t envision herself playing Ma Rainey

Davis spoke to 60 Minutes‘ David Wertheim about playing Rainey, someone who she viewed as a “woman from her time period” in search of the recognition and justice she rightfully deserved. When Wertheim asked her if she ever saw herself playing Rainey, Davis was frank with her answer.

“No, I did not,” Davis said bluntly.

Davis described the “weird Peter Pan syndrome” feeling she felt when she was approached to do the role.

“I still saw myself as that 19-year-old girl going, ‘I can’t play Ma Rainey! I’m too young! You gotta get a more formidable actress who’s been out there for 40 or 50 years!’ Until I realized, ‘Viola, you’re actually a little bit older than what Ma Rainey is,'” she said laughing.