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In the new Netflix biopic Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Oscar-winning actor Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, a singer from the early 20th century who’s regarded as the Mother of the Blues. She stars alongside Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman in what became his last film before sadly dying of colon cancer in August 2020.

Viola Davis smiling
Viola Davis | Andreas Solaro/Getty Images

Viola Davis’ latest movie is Chadwick Boseman’s last

In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Boseman plays Levee, a trumpet player who records and plays music with Rainey. He has dreams of breaking into the music industry himself in the same vein as legendary trumpet player and Ma Rainey collaborator Louis Armstrong.

This isn’t the first time Boseman has played a musician, however. He famously played James Brown in the 2014 biopic Get On Up, which was one of his breakout roles. He even turned down playing Sam Cooke, regarded by many to be the King of Soul.

In an interview with 60 Minutes, Davis recalled the fond memories she and the other actors had watching Boseman work. “We were just watching a great artist absolutely give himself over to a role, which is what you do: you give yourself. You sacrifice yourself.”

Viola Davis
Viola Davis | Alberto E. Rodriguez / Staff

Viola Davis wanted to do Ma Rainey justice

Speaking to 60 Minutes‘ Jon Wertheim, Davis opened up about what it was like getting to play Rainey, and showed that she wanted to do right by her legacy. “She was a combination of a woman from her time period, which is right in the smack dab [middle] of Jim Crow, feeling worthless,” Davis said, “but at the same time knowing who she was deep inside.”

When Wertheim asked her if she ever saw herself playing Rainey, Davis was blunt with her answer. 

“No, I did not,” Davis said chuckling. She went on to describe a “weird Peter Pan syndrome” feeling 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. 

Viola Davis
Viola Davis | Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Chadwick Boseman Hinted at His Illness While Filming ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’ Director Says

Viola Davis was dedicated to every scene as Ma Rainey

Davis recalled one scene in the movie that encapsulated how Rainey thought of herself, and how she asserted herself at a time when bisexual Black women like her were never allowed to.

Before Rainey can get to work in the recording studio on a hot summer day, she needs a cold bottle of Coca-Cola to quench her thirst. She resented the fact that white record label executives were the ones profiting off her music career.

“Where’s my Coke? I need a cold Coca-Cola,” Davis said as Rainey. The men pleaded with her to just record one more song, but Rainey was adamant. “If you’re too cheap to buy a Coca-Cola, I’ll buy my own,” she said grumbling.

She then proceeded to chug a full glass bottle of Coke. Wertheim asked Davis if she downed the whole bottle in one take. “Yes, I did,” she said proudly. “Yeah, I drank the whole Coke.”

Wertheim then asked what’s really happening in the scene, and Davis’ answer was profound and true. “What’s really going on is it’s not about the Coke,” she said plainly. “It’s about what I deserve. It’s about what I’ve worked and what I’ve earned.”