Warning: Spoilers ahead for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, now on Netflix.
Ma Rainey died in 1939, but the New York Times didn’t run an obituary for her until 80 years later, in 2019. She was included in the paper of record’s “Overlooked No More” series highlighting remarkable women forgotten or ignored in their own time. Nicknamed the “Mother of the Blues,” Rainey was one of the most influential performers of the late 19th and early 20th century, setting the stage for and even mentoring the likes of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, who would go on to have legendary careers.
But if the Times obit gives us the facts of her biography, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Netflix’s new film adaptation of August Wilson’s famed 1984 play, brings the singer back to life. Played by Viola Davis in a career-best performance (which really is saying something), our first glimpse of Ma Rainey comes as she takes the stage in a 1927 tent performance in the South, the kind that established her as one of the pillars of the burgeoning blues movement. Clutching gigantic, gaudy feathers, greasepaint streaking down cheeks, mixed with glistening sweat, gold teeth flashing, she has an incredible physical presence. Her body swings and gyrates, taking up the stage and our screens. But Ma Rainey’s most compelling scenes take place off-stage, where the singer must constantly reassert herself as a force, lest she be taken advantage of by those in power.
The rest of the movie takes place in Chicago in the late 1920s, a period of flux for Black performers like Ma Rainey, who had gained popularity on the vaudeville circuit, but were faced with a growing appetite for beats young people could dance to. Ma, already a living legend, is about to cement that legacy by recording her music with the Paramount Record Company. She wasn’t the first to do so — that honour belongs to Mamie Smith — but her story holds lessons that still echo through to modern day debates about Black art.
Born Gertrude Bridget in either Georgia or Alabama (Rainey herself often talked about the former, while a 1900 census disputes her account), she began her career as a teenager, when she joined a band of travelling players performing across the South. 1902 marked her introduction to the blues. According to the Times, a woman with a guitar walked into the tent where she and her fellow musicians were set to perform, and started singing “a song of heartbreak with a twisting, ghostly melody.”
The stage name “Ma Rainey” would come in the aftermath of her 1904 marriage to Will Rainey, a comedian and singer. Together, they created a double act known as “Ma and Pa Rainey” and performed as a duo as part of a number of acts, including circus entertainment and minstrel shows. But as the film shows, Ma was very likely bisexual, and open about her sexual attraction to women. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, she’s accompanied by Dussie Mae (Taylor Paige), a young woman who is clearly in a relationship with Ma. When rebellious trumpet player Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman in his final role) makes eyes at Dussie Mae from across the room, the rest of the band warns him off, stating that she is off limits. (He doesn't listen.) Though constrained by the terminology and attitudes of her time, Ma was certainly more open about her sexuality than most women — and especially Black women — were back then. Rumour has it that Bessie Smith once had to bail her out of jail after she was caught with one of her dancers, and her lyrics are full of allusions to her fascination with women.
Words, and who gets to say them, are a crucial element of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Levee’s arc, for example, centres on his desire to write and perform his own songs, and ends with his words being co-opted by white singers for the profit and gain of white-owned labels. But most striking is the entire sequence in the film that’s dedicated to just 23 words: “All right boys — you done seen the rest, now I’m gonna show you the now. Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom.”
The phrase is supposed to be a vaudeville-like introduction to the film’s titular song and dance, delivered by Ma’s young nephew, Sylvester Brown (Dusan Brown). But the latter has a stammer, which leads to a montage of him struggling to get those 23 words out over and over again, until suddenly — it clicks. The expression on Sylvester’s face is a delight; a rare moment of pure joy in a film that’s filled with monologues about sorrow and struggle. But having him on the album is more than just a kind gesture by an aunt who wants to give her nephew a job and some pocket money. It’s a warning, imparted by a performer who has learned the hard way that using your voice is sometimes the only way to take up space in a world that’s built to silence it.
Though Ma clearly knows how to navigate the industry, literally throwing her weight around to retain creative control over her work and her image, even she can’t fight the system forever. In the 1930s, only a few years after the film’s ending, her style of music eventually fell out of favour, and she lived out her days in Columbus, Georgia, where she ran a couple of theatres. When she eventually died of a heart attack in 1939, her death certificate allegedly listed her profession as “housekeeping.” But through Davis’ stunning performance, she gets her voice back. “In Ma Rainey, everybody’s fighting for their value and the thing that holds us back is being Black.” the actress told David Marchese about her character. “ I wanted that to be a part of Ma Rainey. I wanted people to see what lay in the heart of her being. Which is: I know my worth.”