When you think of blues icons, names like B.B. King, Ray Charles, and Muddy Waters often come to mind almost immediately, but we wouldn’t have blues as we know it today without the musical contributions of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. In upcoming Netflix film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, fans of the genre will get a chance to look back at the colourful life and legacy of the blues maverick, as played by Viola “I Invented Acting” Davis.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second August Wilson production to be adapted for film by Denzel Washington (after his 2016 film Fences, also starring Davis), who has vowed to bring more of the late playwright’s work to the silver screen. The movie follows the last years of Rainey’s career as a blues musician in 1920s Chicago, delving deep into the Alabama artist’s quest to be the best in business amidst an aggressively racist and sexist environment that undervalues and exploits her talents despite years of success.
“They don’t care nothin’ about me,” gripes Rainey in the film’s first official trailer. “All they want is my voice.”
Davis really flexes her skills as a thespian for the role, so much so that there could be a chance of her joining the illustrious and exclusive club of EGOT winners in the near future. The How to Get Away with Murder actress already has an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Tony, and a Grammy might very well be in her future with this role; Davis reportedly provided her own vocals for the project.
In addition to the future EGOT winner — and yes, I’m manifesting this for her— is an all-star cast. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was Boseman’s very last project before he tragically died from a private battle with colon cancer in August. He starred in the film as Levee, a slick talking trumpeter whose grand ambitions for fame (and his interest in her longtime girlfriend) clash with Rainey’s vision for her band. Rounding out the cast are Colman Domingo (Candyman), Glynn Turman (A Different World), Taylour Paige (Zola), Dusan Brown, and Michael Potts (The Wire).
Watching the film will be bittersweet for many reasons, but Davis promises that its story is also one of Black triumph. For her, it's a reminder of Black excellence and resilience even in the face of constant oppression.
“When you look at Ma Rainey as a narrative, you see our hopes and dreams… mixed with the trauma of our past,” Davis said in conversation with The Hollywood Reporter. “People had big visions, big dreams. The past, though, became a huge obstacle in achieving that...but Ma is up for the fight.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will be available for streaming starting December 18 on Netflix.