Opening Up the Oscars: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Celebrates 1920s Blues


Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman star in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (Courtesy Netflix)

By Cade Anderson, Arts Writer


Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman shine beyond measure in George Wolfe’s film adaptation of the 1982 play by August Wilson. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” released on Netflix on Dec. 18, 2020, is a gripping portrait of American blues music in 1927.

Chadwick Boseman is up for an Oscar as Levee Green in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (Courtesy Netflix)

The film has earned a considerable amount of attention this awards season. For his depiction of the spirited but tormented trumpet player Levee Green, Boseman was posthumously awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actor and is up for a potential Oscar win for Best Actor. Boseman quickly became a national legend through his performances in historical dramas and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His final performance overflows with vigor and is sure to be remembered. 

Davis’ Best Actress nomination for her titular performance as the “Mother of Blues” made her the most Oscar-nominated Black actress in history. But it’s a “limited honor,” Davis said. “The only reason I’m breaking records is that no one has been recognized … a lot of time with inclusivity, it’s a second thought. We’re the leftovers.” The white fascination with Black art but the active exclusion of Black artists is a fundamental theme in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” 

Likely Oscar Wins in Costume and Makeup

In addition to the Best Actor and Best Actress nods, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has also racked up Academy Award nominations for Best Production Design, Best Costume Design and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. I think we can expect to see the movie pick up at least some of these Oscars later this month.

Viola Davis is up for an Oscar as Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (Courtesy Netflix)

Although the film’s theater-to-Netflix translation makes for choppy editing and unfulfilling storytelling at times, the adaptation does set the stage for a strong visual experience. Davis is near-unrecognizable as she transforms into the swaggering, sweat-drenched Ma Rainey. Her vibrant and intentionally messy makeup is an integral element of the story. “Ma Rainey was a large woman and was, by her contemporaries, considered not an attractive woman. She sweated profusely, especially during her performances,” said makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera, who did the majority of Davis’ makeup by hand to get “that homemade, jittery, imperfect, over-the-top” look.

Hairstylist Mia Neal went to unconventional lengths to get Davis’ hair right. After learning that Ma Rainey wore stiff horsehair wigs in her day, Neal procured actual horse hair with manure in it, then boiled it and baked it. “I realized that it was like a modern-day synthetic wig. It held its set with such a memory that I understood why people were using horsehair wigs,” Neal said.

Meanwhile, costume designer Ann Roth and production designers and decorators Mark Ricker, Karen O’Hara and Diana Stoughton found a balance between theatricality and authenticity. They collaborated with the cast to make a larger-than-life musical that’s simultaneously a slow-burn based on true events. 

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” might not be any cinematic or directorial wonder — but the actors and design teams bring to life an important piece of human history. It’s available to stream on Netflix.


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