Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom entered the awards race with impressive credentials. One of two films last year featuring the late Chadwick Boseman, George C. Wolfe’s Netflix film also reunites star Viola Davis with the work of playwright August Wilson, a winning combination that landed her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 2016’s Fences.
This time, the intimate setting is a Chicago studio in 1927, where blues singer Ma Rainey (Davis) and her band prepare for what will be a fraught recording session.
Coleman Domingo, who plays blues musician Cutler, explains during the film’s panel at Deadline’s Contenders Film award-season event that Wilson’s 1982 drama still has much to say about today. Referring to the assembled talent, he says, “Everyone here has been gifted with the tremendous responsibility to tell the story of Ma Rainey and her band and the blues. The blues is America. The blues is the story of African-Americans and their history in America, and we’re at this momentous time to go deep and interrogate the soul of who we are.”
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For Davis, that sense of African American identity was a vital draw, she explains during the discussion that also featured Michael Potts, Taylor Paige, Dusan Brown and director George C Wolfe.
“I’ve always wanted to play human beings,” she says, “and I think I’ve spent a better part of my career having to do the classics, and having to really work hard to imagine myself in [plays by] George Bernard Shaw or Shakespeare, or Eugene O’Neill or any number of great playwrights. It’s always me taking everything that I’m about—my Blackness, my womanhood, my memories—and trying to fit a square peg into a round hole… But I don’t have to really work at that part of it with August. August already speaks to my soul. August begs me to give him my Blackness, to give him my womanhood and my memories—all of the things that make me me.”
Check back soon for the panel video.