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Viola Davis is an unspeakable talent. Viola Davis is stunning. Viola Davis is powerful. Viola Davis should have stepped aside for an actress who didn’t need a fat suit.
As the trailer for Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom made its worldwide debut earlier this year, I knew two things were going to be true: 1) Viola Davis would deliver a masterclass in acting and 2) Ma Rainey’s story would not be told with dignity and integrity because the lead actress would don a fat suit.
Ma Rainey was a fat, queer, dark-skinned, blues-singing Black woman, also known as The Mother of the Blues. I was so excited when I found out we’d be getting August Wilson’s play centering Ma Rainey on the screen. However, what we got was not the Ma Rainey we all deserved.
As I watched Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I couldn’t help but focus on Davis’ misplaced fat suit. It felt as if someone was playing a trick on me.
While Davis is a brilliant actress and August Wilson was a superb playwright, watching Davis portray Ma Rainey is a consistent reminder of how insidious and violent fatphobia in Hollywood and the entertainment industry actually is.
Viola Davis shared in her interview with Indie Wire, that Ma Rainey was “very big, well over 300 pounds” and while Davis gained weight for the role, she was still under 200 pounds and would need to wear a fat suit.
The fat suit, which folks have also referred to as padding, was modeled after Aretha Franklin’s body as Davis listed Ms. Franklin as a “beautiful big woman” that she admired.
Many people and Davis’ peers are praising her for her transformation, however, fat actresses exist and fat people are not costumes.
We’ve all watched interviews where Viola has shared how limiting Hollywood can be sometimes and how much she struggles to book fulfilling worthwhile roles as a dark-skinned older Black woman. The acting world provides such little opportunities for actresses like Davis and it only makes me wonder why Viola, Denzel Washington, and casting directors didn’t think to hire a dark-skinned fat actress for this role.
There are so many ways fat Black actresses are marginalized in Hollywood and denied opportunities. Roles such as Ma Rainey don’t come around often for fat Black actresses. In fact, these are the roles they train for, yet when the opportunity presents itself they’re snubbed— by actresses in fat suits.
I would have loved to see Danielle Brooks, a singer-actress, take on this role, or maybe even Amber Riley, Raven Goodwin, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Octavia Spencer, Mo’Nique; or better yet this could have been a prime time to debut a fresh face.
In the year 2020, if we seek to create art with true representation that fully embraces who we are and the stories we hope to tell, we must be able to listen to those whose voices are most silenced.
The people who hold the power must be better.
We must do better and we must all share in the rage when discrimination like this happens. We can hold our legends up and revere their work while still critiquing their choices.
We offer this critique of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, not because we hate Viola Davis, but because we love her and we’re invested in community.
As you continue to watch this film and hold conversations with your community on this topic, my hope is for you to center fat folks’ voices, learn about the herstory of Ma Rainey, and for you to disrupt fatphobia in its tracks.
No matter how salient one’s marginalized identities are, it’s important to always be mindful of one’s privilege. We can only hope next time Davis, and actors like her, are mindful of the privileges they hold when accepting their roles and telling these stories.
Visibility is essential.
Representation truly does matter.