Viola Davis Is Iconically Queer Again in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”!

When we are talking movies, there is nothing that I am more excited about this year than Netflix’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And sure, there have been times when writing for this queer website, I’ve been prone to hyperbole in the in name of… well… hype.

But NO — this is not one of those times.

I am a black queer woman and bonafide history nerd, the kind of person for whom the only thing she loves more than books is theatre. So the countdown clock to Ma Rainey falls directly at the intersection of all my Venn diagram circles. Please let me fully break this down for you:

1) August Wilson is arguably (and for me — there actually is no argument) the most significant Black playwright to have ever lived. His series of ten plays, collectively called “The Century Cycle,” chronicle the lived experiences of Black American communities across the 20th century. Those plays in the include: Fences (for which Viola Davis won a Tony Award for her performance as Rose Lee Maxson in the 2010 Broadway revival and then won her Oscar for the same role seven years later when the play was adapted to film), The Piano Lesson (both Fences and The Piano Lesson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), and yes — Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,.

2) In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a film adaption of Wilson’s play, Viola Davis will play Black queer blues foremother and absolute legend Ma Rainey. Remember when Mo’Nique played Ma Rainey in Dee Rees’ 2015 Bessie (one of my already documented top ten lesbian movies!!)!?! Well, now we’re switching one Oscar winner for another! A Black queer historical icon so great that not one, but two Oscar Winners Will Have Played HER??? Send me directly to my fainting couch.

3) In the play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, you sure can bet that Ma Rainey is queer!! The central plot surrounds, in part, her band’s trumpeter Levee (seen here as Chadwick Boseman) catching feelings towards Ma’s girlfriend while the band is cooped up in a recording studio and Ma is dealing with her racist white manager.

4) The film is coming to us from a venerable treasure trove of Black talent! Obviously we have none other than Viola Davis. This was also the last film production that Chadwick Boseman worked on before his heartbreaking and untimely passing last summer. Glynn Turman, someone who’s built quite a reputation of late playing fatherly figures in Black queer productions (Queen Sugar, How to Get Away with Murder), is one of my favorite actors in his age bracket. And if you spend enough time around Black Broadway circles then you know that Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who adapted Wilson’s script for the screen) and George C. Wolfe (the film’s director) both have reputations that enter the room far before they do. They’ve each left indelible marks on the genre; now they get to play in perhaps the greatest sandbox.

5) DID. I. ALREADY. MENTION. THAT. VIOLA. DAVIS. — Fresh off six years as Annalise Keating, the most important Black queer woman character on television IS. BACK. AND. ONCE. AGAIN. PLAYING. GAY!!!

Ok wonderful, we are all caught up here. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom hits Netflix on December 18th. And I, for one, cannot wait.

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Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 714 articles for us.


  1. Half way through this I cried for the first time in a long pandemic time thinking about how much I miss the visceral experience of good live theater. I had tickets to see Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in LA a year or two ago and was too busy to make it to the theater that night. Now I would just like one night to go back and experience it in a crowded room with other people under the hot lights of the stage

  2. I am so stoked for this. Viola Davis is legend and Chadwick Boseman changed the culture. I saw a production of August Wilson’s play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone years ago at the Fountain in L.A. It, literally, took my breath away. And Ruben Santiago Hudson is an absolute favorite. Lackawanna Blues was amazing.

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