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Colman Domingo

Colman Domingo Gets Emotional About Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Actor Colman Domingo discusses his new film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and his friend, the late Chadwick Boseman

During a week of solitude, embracing the quiet of nature and the calm of the woods near Mount. Shasta in Northern California, Colman Domingo escaped the chaos the rest of the country was enduring following the Presidential election. The Philadelphia native learned the results of the election when he found a hotspot while in almost complete isolation on a solo camping adventure. “The only person I had to celebrate with was a horse named Myrtle,” Domino says with a laugh. “I had to take a picture because no one would believe me otherwise.” In a way, this image of a successful actor, director and playwright standing in the woods crying next to a horse feels cinematic, and Domingo would certainly know.

Lincoln, Selma, If Beale Street Could Talk and the new Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (streaming now on Netflix), are just a few of the award-winning films that Domingo has been seen in. The film, directed by George C. Wolfe and produced by Denzel Washington, is an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name and takes place in a Chicago recording studio. Starring Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, the mother of the Blues, and her band portrayed by Domingo, Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts, the film tackles issues of race, religion, and gender equality in the 1920s. “I’m in the company of giants in this film,” says Domingo “and every issue tackled in that play is relevant today.”

Chadwick Boseman and Colman Domingo

Chadwick Boseman and Colman Domingo in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

One of those giants is Boseman, who lost his battle to colon cancer this past August; his passionate portrayal of trumpeter Levee was his final film role. “If this were the last movie I did, I would be proud,” Domingo says respectfully. “I think the film’s message is about dreams and ambition but more than anything, my friend’s legacy. This is a legacy piece for all of us that I know Chad was so proud of.” But, during filming, no one knew what their colleague was experiencing. “I’m going to get emotional but I didn’t know what Chad was going through. No one knew. Because he showed up every day and sure, some days it would take him longer, but I thought he was just getting into character,” says Domingo. Boseman was recently honored with a posthumous best actor nomination from the IFP Gotham Awards.

Boseman wasn’t his only impressive co-star. “Viola is a force of nature,” Domingo says of Davis, whose wise, unapologetic, and authoritative Rainey is the heart of the film. “On set we would all just laugh and we had a great time and a great work ethic together.” He adds, “I think we all learned from each other.”

Viola Davis and Colman Domingo

A scene from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

One thing that didn’t require learning was the importance of August Wilson’s story and how impactful it can be today. “There are things about being a Black man that I inherently understand,” says Domingo. “I might need to research the music and the era but I understand the way August Wilson writes about Black men.” Wilson was revered as “theater’s poet of Black America” and in the decades before his death collected dozens of awards for his work, most notably a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Fences (1985) which was adapted into a 2016 film starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. “August Wilson is the Shakespeare of our time. You can’t half ass his work. You’ve got to give it your all.” The film is primarily set in the band room, which Domingo says was made to feel “like a slave hull” for the band members. “It’s all very psychological about faith and there is so much symbolism,” he says, adding that the film deserves more than one viewing in order to fully appreciate it. “The way the band room was always set up, it was set up as a sparring match so you had to watch each other.”

During the rehearsal period, director George C. Wolfe recalls watching an intimate moment unfold between Domingo and Boseman that punctuated both actor’s commitment to their craft and their passion. “Chadwick casually launched into one of his most potent monologues and by the time he got to the end, there was nothing casual about it. It was emotionally visceral and raw,” says Wolfe. “Afterwards, he broke down sobbing and Colman hugged him and held on to him until he recovered. It was deeply moving, not just Chadwick’s work, but Colman’s generosity and care. Truly a lovely human being.”

Colman Domingo

Colman Domingo

Cutler, Domingo’s character, has an integral role in keeping the band on the same page and that responsibility transcends beyond the screen. “I’m a leader,” says Domingo. “I’m the leader of the band in this movie and in life. I’m always the one to get everyone together for dinners or social gatherings. It took me a long time to use that word but, I’m a leader.”

Consequently, Domingo seems to be marching ahead—with upcoming projects including a reprisal of his series role in a special Christmas episode of the HBO hit Euphoria and a part in the Jordan Peele-produced reimagining of the horror classic Candyman. It’s a good thing he got that solo camping trip in when he did; it seems the limelight is going to keep Domingo occupied from here on out.