Viola Davis: 'Ma Rainey' shows long history of Black performers being exploited, and how they've fought back

·3-min read

Watch: Viola Davis talks to Yahoo about her new film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

By Kevin Polowy

The issue is as old as the music industry itself: Black musicians write and perform songs, white power brokers distribute the recordings and pocket more profit than the art’s creators.

In the acclaimed new Netflix drama Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, we get a look at how far the exploitation of Black recording artists dates back: at least to nearly a century ago.

The film, directed by George C. Wolfe and based on the play by August Wilson (adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson), stars Viola Davis as the eponymous real-life “Mother of Blues,” who along with her band (including Chadwick Boseman in a fiery final performance), get nickel-and-dimed by a pair of producers as they record in 1927 Chicago.

Read more: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom star pays tribute to Chadwick Boseman

“It was used, it was abused, our power was taken away, our rights were taken away,” Davis, who’s long been outspoken about pay inequality in her own industry and gives a blistering performance in the film, tells Yahoo Entertainment in a recent virtual press day for the film (watch above).

Viola Davis in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' (Netflix)
Viola Davis in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. (Photo: Netflix)

Though it’s set in the thick of the era of racial segregation, and 37 years before the landmark Civil Rights of 1964, Ma fights tooth-and-nail for what she’s owed — which Davis says proves a popular misconception about Black artists wrong.

“What it layers on… especially through the role of Ma Rainey, that we didn’t always kowtow,” says the Oscar-winning Fences and Widows actress. “There’s a sense that because our power was taken, it therefore ensues that we were very meek around that power structure. And that’s not always the case. When white people are not in charge of our images, when you are in the company of just Black families, Black people, we are much different than what you see on screen.

CHICAGO - CIRCA 1924:  "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey and her band the Rabbit Foot Minstrels with Ed Pollock, Albert Wynn, Thomas A. Dorsey (on piano at right) Ma (Gertrude) Rainey, Dave Nelson and Gabriel Washington pose for a portrait circa 1924 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
"Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey and her band the Rabbit Foot Minstrels with Ed Pollock, Albert Wynn, Thomas A. Dorsey (on piano at right) Ma (Gertrude) Rainey, Dave Nelson and Gabriel Washington pose for a portrait circa 1924 in Chicago, Illinois. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“That’s one thing that I’m so happy August showed. That Ma Rainey was a person that, when she walked into a room, she knew what her worth was. She knew what her power was. And that’s in stark contrast to what she wasn’t allowed to be given. That dichotomy, that complexity, is what I want people to get.”

It relates to what Black actors are still dealing with today, Davis says.

“I think people feel that way now with Hollywood, that because when people talk about, ‘Black actors don’t get paid as much,’ [they think] that we don’t walk into the room and ask for it. We’re asking for it. We’re fighting for it. But this is what it is.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is now streaming on Netflix.

Watch Viola Davis and her costars pay tribute to Chadwick Boseman:

— Videos produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jimmie Rhee