Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the new Netflix film based on the August Wilson play of the same name — which is itself based on the life of legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) — mixes fact and historical fiction. Rainey had a groundbreaking, triumphant career in the 1920s, and many parts of her story, including her musical success, somewhat open bisexuality, and specific songs like “Hear Me Talking to You” were all real. But Ma Rainey also follows the virtuoso trumpet player Levee (Chadwick Boseman) as he clashes with Ma and her producer, Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne). And although Levee is a completely fictional character, his story echoes the very real experiences of many Black musicians during the 1920s.
Throughout Ma Rainey, Levee makes it no secret that he has aspirations beyond playing backup for Ma. He wants to form his own band and record his own songs — in particular, one about a jelly roll. The song isn’t real, but it seems to be based on Charley Patton’s “Shake It & Break It.” (Jelly roll, at the time, was a common slang word for vulva or cunnilingus; Rainey’s contemporaries, including Jelly Roll Morton and Bessie Smith, also wrote similar lyrics.)
Levee brings his music to Sturdyvant, who says that he doesn’t think the songs will sell. “They’re not the type of songs people are looking for,” the producer says says. “They’re just not the right songs.” Despite Levee’s arguments, Sturdyvant refuses to let him record his music, and instead offers to pay $5 for each song, just to take them off his hands. Levee remains steadfast that he wants to record them, but ultimately, we learn that he accepted Sturdyvant’s deal: The film’s final scene shows an all-white band performing Levee’s song in the studio, while Sturdyvant watches on.
In the ’20s and ’30s, many prominent record labels began realising that they could profit off of music by Black artists. Rainey’s label, Paramount Records, played a big role in this: Blues, gospel, and jazz records written and arranged by Black musicians quickly became the company’s most lucrative offering. “The bulk of the available information indicates that the recording industry rarely conceded royalties to Black artists, while white performers of country music, though also exploited due to their lack of experience, could in some cases get at least part of what was rightfully theirs,” wrote Robert Springer in “Folklore, Commercialism, and Exploitation: Copyright in the Blues.” Not only were Black artists paid less than their white counterparts, but they were bringing in more money, too, allowing labels to reach large markets of Black consumers. One of Levee’s bandmates, Cutler (Colman Domingo), alludes to this in Ma Rainey, when he announces that the white men in music aren’t the ones who made Rainey a star.
“The socio-economic position of African-Americans in the South, their frequent illiteracy, and the fact that they were novices in the world of commercial music, made them easy prey who could be exploited without contract or persuaded to sign away their rights,” Springer added. “Probably as a result of an ingrained suspicion of whites in business dealings… they scarcely hesitated at all between ready cash and hypothetical sums that might come their way in the future.”
And as Ma Rainey illustrates, even the Black artists who found success in the industry and earned record deals weren’t given the respect they deserved. The real Ma Rainey’s contract was abruptly terminated in 1928; Paramount said that “her down-home material had gone out of fashion.” To date, she remains one of the most influential blues artists of all time; in 1990, over 50 years after her death, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2019, she finally received an obituary in the New York Times as a part of the publication’s “Overlooked No More” series. But Levee’s story, albeit fictional, pushes us to ask just how many stories are still overlooked today.