Is Viola Davis Really Singing in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'?

The short answer is yes and no.

David Lee/Netflix
David Lee/Netflix
David Lee/Netflix

The first thing you hear in the Netflix film adaptation of the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the booming voice of the titular character, the legendary blues singer. Viola Davis, in heavy makeup, embodies the performer as she gyrates, but that’s not Davis’ voice emanating from her own mouth. In fact, over the course of the film Davis sings only one time.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom peers in on Ma Rainey and her backing band over the course of a 1927 recording session in Chicago. Music, appropriately, is nearly constant throughout the film. The score is by jazz legend Branford Marsalis, while the tunes that Ma Rainey sings are from her own catalog. It’s through Rainey’s dedication to her traditional sound that the piece finds its first conflict. Levee, the upstart trumpeter played by Chadwick Boseman, wants to innovate; she remains committed to her loyal Black audience and the way she has always done things.

The one moment where you will actually hear Davis’ singing voice comes about 25 minutes into the film. Ma embraces her girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige) and croons “Those Dogs of Mine” directly into her ear. It’s an intimate moment, and Davis almost talks through the melody as part of her seduction. Her voice cracks as she kisses Dussie Mae’s neck.

But when Viola is performing as Ma Rainey, her voice is provided by someone else: Maxayn Lewis, a veteran vocalist who was recruited by Marsalis. Lewis has had a lengthy career stemming back to when she performed as one of The Ikettes, the trio of women known for backing Ike and Tina Turner. “Mr. Marsalis had the wisdom to bring the music to life in the most authentic way possible, and he kept us all on track with his incredible humor, knowledge and kindness,” she says in the press notes. “It is a stunningly beautiful film. As I was singing I found myself being pulled into the story.” It’s Lewis’ voice you hear on the title track, as well as the opening number, and another interspersed in the story. 

This is no discredit to Davis’ performance, however. Though she may be lip-syncing, she’s still powerfully interpreting the songs with her entire body. The same thing can be said for Boseman, who wasn’t playing the trumpet, but reportedly asked Marsalis to show him exactly how Levee would be holding his fingers on the instrument to make his work look as authentic as possible.Need help finding something to watch? Sign up here for our weekly Streamail newsletter to get streaming recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.


Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.


Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.


BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

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