‘Chadwick will be remembered as a hero’: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis on making Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Steve Rose
·12-min read

One of the most powerful moments in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes when Levee, the firebrand trumpeter played by the late Chadwick Boseman, gets into an argument with his bandmate about religion. The setting is a hot recording studio in 20s Chicago, where the blues singer Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis) and her band have come to play some songs.

The trombonist, Cutler, has just told a story about a black reverend who was persecuted by white people in Mississippi. “What I wants to know is, if he a man of God, where the hell was God when all of this was going on?” asks Levee. “Why wasn’t God looking out for him?” Levee becomes more and more worked up, declaring that “God can kiss my ass!” and getting into a fight with Cutler, pulling a knife on him, then finally stabbing into the air, tears streaked down his face, challenging God at the top of his voice: “Come on, what you scared of? Turn your back on me! Come on! Coward, motherfucker!”

By this time, Levee’s bandmates have been reduced to stunned silence. Viewers might well be, too. The energy and intensity of Boseman’s performance is amplified by the knowledge that it would be his last. He knew that at that time; those around him found out along with the rest of us, when Boseman’s family announced his death in August, after four years with colon cancer. Knowing what we know now, and what Boseman knew then, not only gives scenes such as this a jolt of resonance; it also points to the resources the actor must have drawn upon to conjure such a forceful performance, even while he was coping with terminal illness.

“It’s a very rigorous role,” says the film’s director, George C Wolfe. “And every single day, for every single take, he put his whole being into it. For every one of those raw, emotional scenes, I’m sure we did anywhere from five to 10 takes, and every single take he was fully invested. So I was as shocked, and saddened, as everybody else.”

Colman Domingo, who plays Cutler, says he will never forget that particular take. “He was going deep into the monologue, and he stopped midway through and looked away because whatever was bubbling inside of him, it was tapping into his soul, and it was tapping into mine and everyone else who was there. And I thought: the director’s gonna call cut, and I just knew that we were on to something. It was the first time I ever did this in my career, but I just started yelling at the top of my voice: ‘Tell me! Tell me!’”

At this point in the scene, Levee’s rage at the almighty finally bursts out of Boseman, who howls that God hates black people “with all the fury in his heart”.

“He said this with such fury, then I punch him in the face, then we go into our thoughts and then George Wolfe calls cut,” says Domingo. “And immediately we threw our arms around each other. And we sobbed and we sobbed.” Domingo had no idea Boseman was dying, but in hindsight he suggests: “Maybe I was picking up on some possible energy.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the second play by August Wilson to be adapted for the screen in recent years. The first was Fences in 2016, directed and co-produced by Denzel Washington, who starred in it alongside Viola Davis (who won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Bafta for her performance). Washington is on a mission: in 2014, he was entrusted by Wilson’s widow (the playwright died in 2005) to translate his works to the screen, in particular his celebrated Pittsburgh Cycle: 10 plays, mostly set in his home town, chronicling African American life through the decades of the 20th century.

He loved the work. It’s the other, celebrity sort of obligations that completely wore him down

Viola Davis

Wilson is often likened to an American Shakespeare. With their multiple layers, historical scope and rhythmic dialogue, his works are rarely off the stage. Davis made her acting debut in a 1988 version of Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, then won a Tony in 2001 for the original Broadway version of King Hedley II. She and Washington won Tonys in 2010 for their performances in the Broadway revival of Fences. This time around, Washington was content to produce the film. “I put my two cents in where I could, but in all seriousness I really tried to stay out of the way,” he says.

He and Wolfe agreed early on Boseman for the character of Levee, the ambitious young trumpeter in the band, who tries to steal the limelight from Ma Rainey, not to mention her young girlfriend. He is a complex character, by turns argumentative, charming and swaggering, but tormented with resentment and rage. “Chad has … or had” – Washington corrects himself, realising he is speaking of Boseman in the present tense – “that kind of a … sweetness. You wouldn’t see it coming, the rage that’s inside the man.”

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was a real person. She was “the mother of the blues”, one of the first singers to take the genre into the mainstream and to record it (the black bottom was a popular dance). Like many African Americans in the 20s, she left the Jim Crow south to seek new opportunities in desegregated northern cities such as Chicago. As evoked by Wilson and embodied by Davis, Rainey is a formidable character – world-weary, prone to diva-esque behaviour (she refuses to start singing until someone fetches her a Coke), fully aware of her power as an artist and her white producers’ eagerness to exploit it. (Wolfe adds an ironic coda to Wilson’s script that drives the appropriation point home.) “White folks don’t understand about the blues,” she says. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking.”

Davis’s Ma Rainey is also a sight to behold: heavy greasepaint makeup, jewellery, headband, gold grills on her front teeth, flamboyant dresses that do little to conceal her ample frame – achieved by much unflattering padding. “It was really a transformation,” says Washington. “Viola had a good time with that big behind they put on her. She was always knocking people over. She loved swinging that butt around!”

“I did enjoy my padding very much,” Davis confirms. “It’s my job to honour her by playing her as truthfully as possible. I think she’s beautiful, because she is who she is. I don’t think that someone’s beauty is validated by the physical. I think the biggest point of her beauty is that she knows her worth. And I think sometimes people don’t even know that in a lifetime.”

Alongside Boseman, Rainey’s band members are played by veterans of the stage and screen: Domingo, Glynn Turman (who made his stage debut opposite Sidney Poitier in the original 1959 production of A Raisin in the Sun) and Michael Potts (best known for his role as Brother Mouzone in The Wire). Domingo calls them “the workhorses of the industry. People who are not attached to fame or fortune; we got into it because we love to do the work.” Their camaraderie is apparent. “They hung tough. They were a unit,” says Washington. “Between takes, they were always sitting together. They just became a band, talking nonsense, eating together, practising together.”

None of the actors knew how to play their instruments, but they had to look as if they could, so they were each assigned a tutor. Inevitably, things got competitive, says Potts, the double bassist: “We were staying in the same hotel, so oftentimes we could hear each other practising. So that stoked the competitive nature. I was hearing Glynn doing the piano, so it was like: ‘Oh, OK, let me get up and rehearse some more.’ Then I’d hear Colman on the trombone. And then Chad would come in and he’d be blowing the cornet constantly, like: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m gonna be the best one.’” No prizes for guessing who came out on top. “By the time we shot it, Chad could play,” says Wolfe. “The intonation wasn’t flawless, but he could totally play the songs. It was the most fascinating thing to watch.”

Impressions of Boseman seem to vary. Potts remembers him as a perfectionist: “Very, very quiet, very much in his thoughts. But I noticed that he was watching everything and listening to everything. You could see the wheels turning.”

Domingo’s relationship with Boseman went back further. They met in 2005 and had worked together on 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic (though Domingo’s scene was cut). “He was always talking about something else and philosophising about something,” says Domingo. “It was never just about acting. Even the way he dressed. He was more like a shaman, in a way.” What does a shaman dress like? “Well, he dressed kind of bohemian. Even for rehearsals, he would come in with these sort of African pants, like print, with a low crotch, things like that. He was always very chill in that way. And always with a good hat on. He always wore a big hat. That was also, I think, a bit of his character, Levee.”

Davis knew something of Boseman’s technique, having played his mother in the James Brown biopic Get On Up, during which he continued being “Mr Brown” between takes. “He stayed in character during this one, too,” she says. “You know, that’s how he worked. He was always giving me the side-eye as Ma, you know? Because Ma and Levee have a very contentious relationship, of course.” On set, she could not say she saw the “real” Boseman. “He absolutely was trying to be as small as possible with ‘Chadwick’, which is why I feel like he stayed in character. It was his way of sort of leaving himself at the door as much as he could.”

Every single day, for every single take, he put his whole being into it

George C Wolfe

This is one aspect upon which all agree. Boseman was coming into this project off the back of Black Panther and the Avengers movies, some of the highest-grossing films in history. He was one of the most famous men on the planet, but you would never know it. “There was no T’Challa in the room,” as Domingo puts it. “It was just a working artist.” The realisation struck home for Turman when they were lining up for a group cast and crew photo. “Denzel playfully yelled out: ‘Move over! Move over! I got to stand next to the money,’ meaning Chadwick. I thought: well, Denzel Washington is calling Chadwick ‘the money’; he must really be a star!”

On the few occasions Davis met Boseman off set, though, he confided in her that he found fame a burden. “He just didn’t like it,” she says. “He said he loved the work. It’s the other, celebrity sort of obligations that completely wore him down. But that’s a lot of us. I mean, I don’t want to speak for everyone. And I certainly am not saying that we’re not grateful. But it’s a lot, because you’re feeding a persona that is really not you. So he found that very difficult. Yeah. He was exhausted by it.”

If Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a play about the status of black entertainers in the 20s, then the movie version is a good measure of what has changed in 100 years. The burdens on Boseman and Davis are of a different order to those on Ma Rainey herself, whose celebrity power was constrained by the systems and structures of the white-dominated industry. Now, entertainers such as Washington, Boseman and Davis have the power to get black stories made – and there is a depth of black talent to put them on screen.

For future Wilson adaptations, Washington has been talking to stage and screen directors including Ryan Coogler, Debbie Allen and Kenny Leon. Next to come is The Piano Lesson, which he expects to shoot in 2022. Barry Jenkins will direct; the cast is led by Samuel L Jackson and John David Washington, Denzel’s son. “A lot of things have changed since,” agrees Washington. “But the struggle continues.”

Boseman takes his place in that struggle. His career was guided by a consciousness of it. When given the opportunity, he chose his roles with purpose. He played real-life African American heroes – Robinson, Brown, the civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall – and fictional ones, such as Black Panther. His character in Ma Rainey is hardly a moral paragon, but, under the circumstances, it could be his most heroic performance of all.

“I think he is going to be remembered as a hero,” says Davis. “There’s a part of the public that’s gonna associate that with Black Panther; I do not. I associate that with his authenticity, especially in the midst of a profession that sometimes can suck that out of you. He was a person who lived a life bigger than themselves. I think that his legacy, his body of work, his integrity, is going to influence on generations upon generations to come.”

“He lived what I like to call a concentrated dose of life,” says Washington. “He had a powerful, effective, incredible life that was unfortunately cut short. We got cheated. His wife, especially, his family – they are the ones who have to deal with the loss and the pain and not having him every day. We, as audience members, consumers, whatever the word, fans, we have enough for ever. He left us incredible performances that will live for ever. A lot of times, I say: you never see a U-Haul [removals van] behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you, but you can leave it. And Chad has left it here.”

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is in cinemas on 4 December and on Netflix on 18 December