This Netflix movie is adapted from a play of the same name written by August Wilson — it’s a work of fiction and not a biopic, although the play and this movie are based in historical facts and around historical people. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020) focuses on one day in 1927 when singer Ma Rainey, called the “mother of the blues,” and her band are in Chicago to record an album for her white manager.
Viola Davis plays Ma but more of the movie/play’s action follows her striving young horn player Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman in his final role. OMG he is STUNNING as this character, bringing out every nuance, all the highs and lows, brilliantly. You can tell this is adapted from a play because the dialogue, from the first scenes, is wonderful, so crisp and poetic, sublime, witty, full of allusions, yet in casual dialect, Wilson was a true wordsmith. And an actor like Boseman works those words fantastically, as does all the cast, especially the other band members like Glynn Turman as Toledo and Colman Domingo as Cutler. I don’t want to say much about the plot because it’s beautifully written, addressing white supremacy, toxic masculinity, art, religion, and sexism in ways that are deft and engaging, particularly with this cast. Just watch it!
Since the story is focused on a small group of people one just one day, there are no significant costume changes. But designer Ann Roth has over 50 years of experience, on everything from 9-5 (1980) to The English Patient (1996) to the upcoming film of the musical Wicked, and she took did a lot of historical research to get what’s on screen right. For example, Roth understood how these Black working men would wear their clothes, as she told Fashionista:
“They have to wear a shirt and a tie and they travel on buses and on trains and they travel a lot and their clothes take a beating. If they perform at night, those suits either hang over the back of a chair in a rooming house somewhere. They don’t have a wardrobe lady and they don’t have a valet. Some of them take their pants off, folded them and put them between the mattress and the bedspring. That often happened. It takes the crease out!”
A key piece of Levee’s wardrobe is the brand-new pair of yellow shoes he buys at the start of the story. Roth continued in this interview:
“In that period, most men had a pair of black shoes and a brown pair. When you went to church, those were the black shoes, and the brown shoes were working shoes, but yellow shoes were extraordinary. You had to be a high-stepper to have them, or to wear them, or to pay for them.”
She also paid great attention to Levee’s hat:
“His hat was a big deal with him. Every time he put that hat on, I would go in and change it on his head. Of course, that’s not something you do to an actor before they’re about to perform. But I told him, ‘This is the way I want the hat on.’ I loved him and he loved me, but he invariably would try to put that hat on the way I didn’t want it. But I loved that he knew how to wear a hat. It’s very rare.”
To portray Ma Rainey, Viola Davis wore a padded suit, wigs, and false gold teeth, since the director’s goal was for viewers to forget that this was Davis and only see Ma. In production notes, Davis wrote:
“Usually Ma Rainey and how she looks has been greatly stereotyped in cinematic history and in life. The Black woman is always dark, fat, funny, can sing and is really not sexualized in any way that is dangerous. But that’s not my understanding of women like that. Ma is my Auntie Joyce, my Aunt Letha, who were highly sexual and the most beautiful women I ever seen in my life. They were stylish.”
Ma wears very fancy clothes, on and off stage. In a few flashbacks before the main action of the film, we see her stage outfits with beaded and fringed gowns. Roth wanted everything Ma Rainey wore to look expensive and ‘like a queen’ because:
“She’s not a woman from the North, she’s a Southern girl — and a traveling girl — and I pretended that her clothes were made by a woman in Mississippi. I just made that up, and that’s what I decided.”
Along with her gowns, Ma had two kinds of wigs. For the stage, she wore a wig made of horsehair, something Roth learned in her research and passed along. Hair department head Mia Neal told Variety how she ordered horsehair online, and it came infested with manure and lice eggs:
“It was a challenge, and that was the first time I had ever built a wig with horsehair. I had plastic everywhere. I boiled that wig several times to clean it … The whole thing was a learning process.”
But there was a good historical reason to use horsehair — before synthetics, it was practical!
“This was a Black woman traveling in the ‘20s, so who knew what salons are going to be in that town at the time? It’s not like women of color could walk into any hair salon. She needed that show wig and she needed to be show-ready. I think that’s why she would use that horsehair wig because of the memory, you could put it in a box and it would be ready.”
For the scenes in the studio, Ma wears her “everyday” wig made of European hair:
“This was a woman who wants you to see her stature and her place in society. She was this woman who came from Georgia from nothing. Achieving the European style of the wig was a status symbol. She has created this persona, and Ma Rainey gets what she wants. If she wants a wave like the white girls in the magazine, she’s going to make it happen because she has the money to make it happen.”
Ma Rainey’s makeup was also well-researched, and Davis’s makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera read Sandra Lieb’s biography Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey, in preparation. In The Glow-Up, he explained his process:
“I decided to put away my makeup brushes and use only my fingers. The result is bleary and melting, which served the character of Ma Rainey beautifully … That is why I call this makeup ‘emotional,’ because there’s a tragic element to the application that is a reflection of the efforts the Ma had to make in order to feel seen and respected.”
Also in The Glow-Up, makeup department head Matiki Anoff noted the sweaty look that the director wanted, both because it’s a hot Chicago summer before air conditioning was available but also because each character has a reason to sweat:
“The biggest factor I would say is that Ma Rainey had to out-sweat everybody. George [Wolfe, the director] and Ann [Roth] both wanted everyone sweating, so that was really the challenge, to balance everybody with their degrees of sweat — with the exception of Dussie, who connived how she was going to improve her life. She’s really the only character who doesn’t sweat. The proprietors [of] the establishment are sweating because they can’t get Ma to behave. The band is sweating because they’re playing or fighting. Sylvester’s sweating because he has a stammer, but Ma out-sweated them all.”
It was also important to use makeup to get a historical look for the entire cast and for extras in the large scenes, as Anoff explained:
“In terms of my research, I felt our goal was to successfully recreate 1927 Chicago, prioritizing the disparity of class and race without those factors weighing heavily or overly impressing the fabric of the scenes.”
Hair department head Mia Neal addressed the same issues:
“We had country girls who were laborers with more textured and processed hair, some of them in roller sets. When we see city girls, they’re a lot more polished. You see that in their complete aesthetic … There’s a drastic difference in what they had access to, and you see that in their hair.”
It was a predominantly Black hair and makeup department who paid attention to all of these details and got it right onscreen. While any one of these things might not be noticed, aside from on Viola Davis, having a cohesive historical look in those large scenes definitely grounds the story in a realistic time and place so the actors can shine.
Have you watched Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom?