On a hot summer day in 1927 Chicago, Gertrude Rainey is, also known as Ma Rainey, the mother of the blues, gathered her band together to record her legendary song.
Along with the Tony Award-winning, Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle that chronicles the 20th-century African-American experience.
Viola Davis is almost unrecognizable with kohl black eye makeup, gold teeth and a fat suit. But, as Ma, she struts with the confidence of a woman who knows her worth. She knew they would do anything to get her voice on a record.
Ma Rainey: The Mother of the Blues
Before hip-hop, ragtime or jazz, there was the Blues. The unique rhythmic music is born out of southern African Americans’ work songs and spirituals.
In a time in America where most people of her race lived in poverty and oppression, Gertrude’ Ma’ Rainey traveled the Vaudeville circuit and minstrel shows, earning the reputation as “the mother of the Blues.” Her songs were sexy, even raunchy, with lyrics that talk about her affairs with both men and women. A contemporary of other blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ma also went on to record with Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey.
Ma Rainey enjoyed her fame, living her life unapologetically, dressing in the finest clothes, draped in furs and riding in fancy cars. Even so, Ma knew she was still only “a colored woman” in 1920’s America, only valued for her voice.
Ma Rainey’s Band
Ma’s band members Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), Cutler ( Colman Domingo) and Levee (Chadwick Boseman) gather together in the hot, damp basement room, waiting for Ma to arrive.
An hour later, Ma eventually arrives with her lady friend, Dussie Mae, and Sylvester’s nephew. Tempers and volatile personalities rise with the summer heat between the record producers, the musician and ‘Ma’ Rainey.
Chadwick Boseman’s Final Role
Chadwick plays Levee, the ambitious, young trumpet player. He is fueled by dreams of being successful, having his own blues band, and Sturdivant, the record producer, promises to record his songs. But years of pain, abuse and disappointed hopes boil to the surface, erupting in tragedy.
Awards for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The Netflix film received 5 Academy Awards nominations, including Best Actor for Boseman, Best Actress for Davis, and Makeup and Hairstyling and Costume Design awards.
It also received 8 Critics’ Choice Movie Award nominations and nine NAACP Image Award nominations, including Outstanding Motion Picture, with Davis and Boseman both winning lead acting awards.
Davis and Boseman also won lead acting awards for their performances at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, making history as the first Black actors to win in leading categories, and both received nominations at the Golden Globes, with Boseman posthumously winning Best Actor – Motion Picture Drams.