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

The short answer is yes and no.

ma rainey's black bottom, viola davis
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.

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