This Friday December 18th sees the global Netflix release of the hotly awards-tipped Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, adapted from Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s 1984 play, starring Viola Davis as the trailblazing “Mother of the Blues”. The film, which marks Chadwick Boseman’s final powerhouse screen performance, takes place during a recording session with Ma and her bandmates (Boseman, Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts) over one hot summer Chicago afternoon in 1927. Directed by George C. Wolfe and produced by Denzel Washington, tensions and temperatures rise when the musicians discuss their life experiences as Black men in 1920s America, conversations that resonate just as powerfully in 2020, as they wait for the passionate, strong-willed and openly lesbian Ma, who arrives with her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and immediately butts heads with her white manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and producer Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne).
In addition to starring in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, earlier this month the Tony-nominated actor, playwright, director, and producer Domingo Colman reprised the role of Ali in Euphoria starring opposite Zendaya in the one hour special episode Rue. Ahead of this week’s Netflix premiere of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with Colman along with Emmy-nominated director George C. Wolfe about Ma’s queer identity and the way that’s represented in the movie.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Colman, your character Cutler acknowledges that Ma is there with her girlfriend. I wondered if you could talk a bit about what your character makes of her queer identity and also the importance of telling stories about our queer ancestors, because of course Ma was a real person.
Colman Domingo: “This is a phenomenal thing, and I was thinking about this the other day because August Wilson usually deals with a very male culture, these guys are very masculine, very bravado. You have all these men in the band room, and then you have this forthright woman who’s self-possessed, who is also openly gay. I love in the film how she holds her woman with her nephew right there, and everyone knows that Ma’s gay as well. I love that August is examining that. She created her world and in her world she is the queen and everything she says goes. They know Ma’s proclivities in every single way, and that was also that pioneering spirit. She was fighting so many systems at that time; being being a woman, being a gay woman in a male dominated industry, and so I think she’s a true champion. She had to really take some knocks for all these other people who now think they’ve got it so easy, but they need to go back to Ma, Ma did it first, Ma did it for everyone else. So there always has to be those pioneers and I think it’s great to have more of those stories in the cinema so we can really see ourselves reflected.”
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: George, when it comes to Ma’s LGBTQ identity she is very bold and fearless. Could you talk about representing that on screen and that moment of real passion and intimacy that we see between her and her girlfriend who she’s brought the recording session?
George C. Wolfe: “Well, it’s one of the things that I really loved about Ma Rainey. One of the songs that she records that day, which we don’t see on film, is a song called Prove It On Me in which she sings these incredibly bold, very unapologetic lyrics such as: ‘Went out last night with a crowd of my friends, must have been women cause I don’t like men.’ That was one of her hit songs in the 1920s, and so she lived her life unapologetically that way. It’s the only LGBTQ character that exists in the entire August Wilson cannon and I found it so fascinating that he chose to include her in this story and that he wrote in essence about her. So working with Viola and working with Taylour, who plays Dussie Mae, they were both so comfortable and free and safe with each other, and Ma is so tough and Ma is so commanding and so authoritative, that Viola and I were looking for these places where you see this other energy to her; this protective energy, this nurturing energy. She is ready to stab, kill, or do whatever she needs to do, go off on anybody, to protect her sound, but then you see the way she is nurturing of her nephew, Sylvester, and you see her tell Sturdyvant to get out of her face, and then a few seconds later there she is holding and hugging and caressing her girlfriend. I just love that all of those dynamics exist inside of this woman who was powerful, commanding and didn’t ask anyone’s permission to be who she was. Because why should she?”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom releases globally on Netflix Friday December 18th 2020.