Viola Davis: ‘My father was just one generation removed from slavery’

Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The Oscar-winner on playing Ma Rainey, working with Chadwick Boseman and race in Hollywood

The last time I met Viola Davis she was on the cusp of an apparently inevitable Oscar triumph. She frowned just a little when I noted that the bookies had her at an unbackable 1/66 to win best supporting actress for Denzel Washington’s Fences.

I didn’t jinx it. A few weeks later, the Dolby Theatre erupted as Davis passed the winning post many lengths ahead of the following pack. That was a landmark evening for African-American cinema. Moonlight won best film. Mahershala Ali took best supporting actor.

For Davis, however, it felt like an overdue coronation. Then 51, she had been acting for decades, but, before delivering impressive performances in The Help and Doubt, she had been seen as more of a theatre specialist. Now she had secured regal status across the disciplines. When, a few weeks ago, Time named its “25 greatest actors of the 21st century” few were surprised to see her at No 9. Nobody can stare down the camera like Davis.

Davis has the late August Wilson to thank for some of her success. Fences, which earned her that Oscar, was an adaptation of the African-American author’s most acclaimed play. She won a Tony for her role in the same writer’s King Hedley II. Unless the sky falls (not impossible in this era) she will secure another Academy Award nomination for her barnstorming role in the Netflix adaptation of Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Made up in a rainbow of shades, declaiming in melodic rumbles, she makes a charismatic weather system of the titular blues singer. Despite all her passion for Wilson, she was not, however, certain the role was right for her. It helps that her old pals Denzel Washington and Todd Black were producing, but this was still some challenge.

Denzel Washington and Todd Black are the producers on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photograph: Netflix
Denzel Washington and Todd Black are the producers on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photograph: Netflix

 “Yes, what made me change my mind was the desire to transform into a character that frightens me,” she says, smiling. “It’s always those challenges that help you grow as an actor – and this was that challenge. I think that’s what made me change my mind. And also just, you know, anything that I could do with Denzel and Todd is a blessing. And any chance I get to do August Wilson is a blessing.”

Dressed today in a jolly fuchsia jacket and black shirt, Davis comes across as engaged, lively and humorous. There is, of course, no reason she should not be any of those things. But the memory of her “big scenes” in Doubt and Fences – intense emotion barely contained – does tend to lurk in the brain a little. She is a brilliant technician, but that skill never gets in the way of her access to uninhibited passion. It must be a challenge sharing the same stage or screen.

Wilson’s plays are well accommodated to her gifts. She gets to play with sweet language. She gets to transform. She also gets to let rip.

“There is a comfort level in the knowledge of how he writes,” she says. “His language is like music. But as much as it is like music, it’s also just how we speak as African-Americans. It’s just a part of our lives. It’s my auntie’s language. It’s my uncle’s. It’s my mom, my dad, my sisters.

“So all those years of just being in the same room with him served me really well. I understand the world that he’s created. We’re just trying to catch up. These characters are a part of me. They’re not even characters. They’re people in my life. Those characters are in me.”

Viola Davis is Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which streams on Netflix from December 18th. Photograph: Netflix
Viola Davis is Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which streams on Netflix from December 18th. Photograph: Netflix

Davis was born in South Carolina in 1965. Her dad was a horse trainer, mom a maid and factory worker. “I grew up with a father who was hardcore and was just one generation removed from slavery,” she told me in a previous interview. At just two years old, she found herself briefly in jail when her mother was arrested during a civil rights protest. She was raised in condemned and decaying apartments. All that puts the challenges in perspective.

Davis began acting at high school and, after a spell at Rhode Island College, moved to the hugely prestigious drama programme at Juilliard in New York City. There were, at that time, 856 students across the whole college. Just 30 of those were people of colour. She has never been shy in pointing out the biases in the industry. In a famous interview a few years back she bristled at being dubbed the “black Meryl Streep” (who was nowhere on that New York Times list, we mischievously add). “’You’re a Black Meryl Streep. There is no one like you.’” she parroted. “Okay, then if there’s no one like me … you pay me what I’m worth. You give me what I’m worth.”

Has that situation improved, I wonder. Are black actors getting what they are worth?

“Well, the white artist is still very much more revered than the artists of colour,” she says. “That’s just a common fact. You can’t undo in a short period of time what has taken hundreds of years.”

She’s laughing dryly at the bleak absurdity of it all.

“If you have a character that smokes and who is bald and has a stomach, then they get the black actor who is bald, smokes and has a stomach. They don’t want black artists who can transform into that character. There’s no belief system in place for artistry.”

Viola Davis plays the blues singer Ma Rainey, in a film centered around a Chicago recording session. Photograph: David Lee / Netflix
Viola Davis plays the blues singer Ma Rainey in a film centered around a Chicago recording session. Photograph: David Lee / Netflix

This feels like an observation that only a person of colour could make. Russell Crowe gets to put on wigs and stuff a pillow up his jumper. Black actors are just expected to be the person they’re playing. Yet nobody would mistake the urbane Davis for the raw Ma Rainey. 

“That is changing because there are more artists of colour who are no longer accepting that,” she says. “They are redefining the industry themselves. They’re redefining their lives for themselves. They’re not waiting for permission. It’s like we’ve gotten it. Whatever power we have right now we’re using to go out there and find emerging artists – or established artists – to write roles for us. Or we’re just writing roles for ourselves. We have 400 TV shows right now on Lord knows how many streaming services. It’s over and out as far as waiting for appreciation.”

There are lessons about this in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. A sly coda reminds us how over and over again white musicians made fortunes by refining and defanging African-American genres. Wilson and Davis’s Ma Rainey aren’t taking any of that hooey. She tells the white man where to go. She may not win the war, but she is intent on winning her own little battles.

“Yeah, that was one of the greatest parts of playing Ma Rainey — channelling that unapologetic nature that she had about her own worth,” Davis says. “And she was unapologetic at a time where people didn’t even value her as a human being. You are smack dab in the middle of Jim Crow, which are very, very specific laws that limited the rights of black people across the board. If you read them it’s enough to bring you to your knees.”

These questions were always with us. Even the most optimistic observer would admit that they will probably be with us for some time to come. The focus on the racial divide has, however, been particularly acute in the time of Black Lives Matter. The debate is unavoidable.

“The black experience is what it’s always been,” she says. “It’s an experience that is built into a system where we are dehumanised. And that dehumanisation has evolved into so many facets of our culture. It’s evolved in our education. It’s evolved in police-involved shootings – the number one cause of death in black men under the age of 18. It’s evolved into colourism – if you’re darker than a paper bag, especially if you’re a woman, you know where you are on the radar of beauty. It’s permeated. It’s metastasised into so many facets in our lives.”

Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photograph: Netflix
Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photograph: Netflix

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which hangs around a recording session in Chicago of the 1920s, gains a place in cinema history as Chadwick Boseman’s last film. The star of Black Panther, who died earlier this year at just 43, plays a wild trumpeter in Rainey’s band. While they wait for the diva, he rails against the compliant attitudes of his colleagues. It’s a fine, angry performance that will surely earn Boseman a posthumous Oscar nomination.

At the mention of his name, Davis rocks back.

“Working with him is like working with a true artist,” she says. “I always say that Chadwick Boseman was a character actor in a leading man’s body. You know, he was not a person who was interested in Chadwick coming into the room. He wanted to leave Chadwick at the door. Every once in a while, you’re with an artist that has a completely different energy that’s unlike anyone else’s. It’s hard to explain. They exist on a different plane.”

She describes how Boseman carried a traditional African djembe drum wherever he went. “And he would play it for the longest time in his trailer. I mean… loud! Like everything that was in his soul and his gut was channelled into those drums. And he did that just by himself. He played those drums just for him. It wasn’t to get a job. That was his sacred space. It’s a sacred instrument. That was Chadwick. He was a great man.”

Where do we go from here? Davis acknowledges that there are advantages to gaining proper mainstream fame in your middle years. It gives her perspective. She knows not to permit the industry to overpower her. The renown allows her a greater variety of roles. She has recently finished her run in the TV series How to Get Away with Murder. She plays Amanda Waller in the Suicide Squad films for DC.

That balance between Emmy-winning drama and populist material is important to Davis. “That’s what every actor wants. You want roles that are multifaceted, that shows the full range of your work.”

She pauses for effect. “If… you… can… get… it. Can I say that again? Let me say it again. If… you… can… get.. it.”

We get you. There are still battles to be fought.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is in cinemas now and on Netflix from December 18th