The True Story Behind Viola Davis's Character in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

Elena Nicolaou
·8 min read
The True Story Behind Viola Davis's Character in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

From Oprah Magazine

  • Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a movie adaptation of August Wilson's play starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, came to Netflix on December 18.

  • Set in 1920s Chicago, the play follows a day in the life of Ma Rainey, a blues singer, and her band.

  • Here's what you need to know about the inspiration behind Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

The real Ma Rainey passed away in 1939. But when Viola Davis transformed into the legendary blues singer to film a concert sequence for Netflix's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a crowd of 300 extras—all Pittsburgh natives—responded as if she were the legend herself, brought back to life.

"When Davis came on stage for the first time and the music was playing and she was lip synching, the crowd was in the moment so fully. Screaming, cheering, and so completely and totally there. The energy ricocheted everywhere in that tent. It was so incredibly electric," director George C. Wolfe tells of the powerful moment. "The actors felt it, and Viola felt it. Everyone connected to it."

Photo credit: David Lee
Photo credit: David Lee

At one point during the nine-hour shoot, which stretched until four in the morning, a production assistant told a 92-year-old attendee that she was welcome to go home. "She goes, 'I'm not leaving. This reminds me what it was like,'" Wolfe recalls.

Adapted from August Wilson's play of the same name, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom sets out to show, in every way, "what it was like." What it was like to know your worth, even when others refused to acknowledge it, through the character of Ma Rainey. What it was like to watch ambitions flounder simply because of the color of your skin, through the character of Levee (Chadwick Boseman's final role).

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom takes place during one day in the blues singer's storied life. This is what you need to know about the real Ma Rainey before (or after) watching.

Ma Rainey brought the blues into the mainstream.

In 1923, Ma Rainey became one of the first Black artists to sign a contract with Paramount. Between 1923 and 1928, Ma Rainey recorded over 100 blues records, with prominent songs including “See See Rider,” "Trust No Man,"Black Eye Blues,” and—like the title of the play—"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," named for a popular dance of the Roaring Twenties.

According to a New York Times obituary published in 2019 as part of the paper's "Overlooked" series, Rainey was the first entertainer to "bridge the divide" between vaudeville, which catered to white audiences, and the "authentic Black Southern folk expression" of the blues. In Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT History Before Stonewall, St. Sukie de la Croix observed Rainey was also the first woman to sing in the "less polished style" of male blues singers.

Photo credit: GAB Archive - Getty Images
Photo credit: GAB Archive - Getty Images

Unafraid to veer into life's dark corners, Rainey's music spoke to people's real experiences. "Ma Rainey's blues were simple, straightforward stories about heartbreak, promiscuity, drinking binges, the odyssey of travel, the workplace and the prison road gang, magic and superstition—in short, the southern landscape of African Americans in the Post-Reconstruction era," William Barlow wrote in Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture.

Thanks to Rainey, blues was incorporated into the mainstream. Still, despite being a pioneer, Rainey's popularity declined as jazz and other genres took center stage. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom hints at the dissonance between Rainey's creative vision and the public's changing appetite. Rainey recorded her last session in 1928, though she continued to appear in tent show performances before retiring from music in the mid '30s.

Rainey was a traveling performer by the age of 14.

The woman who would eventually reinvent the blues was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia on April 26, 1886—if you believe her version of events. Per the New York Times, a census entry lists Rainey's birthplace as Alabama and her birth date as September 1882.

By the age of 14, Rainey was traveling as a singer at talent and tent shows. She first encountered the blues at one of these events—specifically, in Missouri in 1902. "A young woman came up to the troupe's tent with a guitar, singing a song of heartbreak with a twisting, ghostly melody. Rainey found herself so struck by the tune's mysterious pathos that she began singing the song as an encore at her own shows," the New York Times obituary read.

Photo credit: David Lee/NETFLIX
Photo credit: David Lee/NETFLIX

At the age of 18, she married William "Pa" Rainey.

She began performing blues music of her own. In 1904, at the age of 18, she married William “Pa” Rainey (and in turn, got her nickname of "Ma" Rainey). Together, they traveled under the name "Ma and Pa Rainey, The Assassinators of The Blues," per the California Museum of African American Art. The couple split in 1916, according to The Guardian.

After the marriage ended, Rainey established her own performance company and named it, “Madame Gertrude Rainey and her Georgia Smart Sets," per the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Rainey was known for wearing a necklace made out of money.

Davis makes a stunning transformation for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. In fact, the New Yorker named Viola Davis's makeup the "real star" of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. According to ET, Davis wore padding, her makeup was greased on, and her teeth gilded to complete the look. Though few photos of Rainey exist, Davis certainly captures the singer's signature presence.

"Ma honed a flamboyant stage persona, making her entrance in a bejeweled, floor-length gown and a necklace made of twenty-dollar gold necklaces," historian Steven J. Niven writes in African American Lives.

Photo credit: David Lee
Photo credit: David Lee

She had a long-lasting friendship with blues legend Bessie Smith.

While traveling with her husband and the Moses Stokes Company, Rainey hired 14-year-old Bessie Smith as a dancer, per Biography. In Rainey, Smith found a maternal figure and musical collaborator. Smith would go on to become one of the most popular blues singers of the '20s and '30s, known as the "Empress of the Blues." Her friendship with the "Mother of Blues" persisted.

Their friendship is depicted in Dee Rees's movie Bessie, with Mo'Nique playing Ma Rainey and Queen Latifah playing Bessie Smith. "She was a great performer. She made people love themselves. She made people accept who they are," Mo'Nique said in a video for HBO.

Openly bisexual, Rainey referenced her sexuality in some songs.

In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Rainey is openly affectionate with her lover, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). According to Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT History Before Stonewall, "Rainey made no secret of her love for women." Or, as Davis described Rainey to the New York Times, "This is a woman who was unapologetic about her sexuality, unapologetic about her worth."

For evidence, look to Rainey's music. In the song "Prove it On Me Blues," Rainey sings, "I went out last night with a crowd of my friends / It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men" and "It's true I wear a collar and a tie."

The Paramount ad for the song featured Rainey "wearing a man's hat, waistcoat, jacket, and tie, and soliciting the attentions of two slender, feminine women," per de la Croix.

The song was allegedly inspired by an incident in 1925, in which Chicago police responded to a noise complaint and found Rainey in "an orgy with several naked chorus girls," de la Croix wrote in Chicago Whispers. Bessie Smith (who was also bisexual), bailed her out.

She died in 1939 at the age of 53.

According to de la Croix, Rainey retired from music in the mid-1930s and spent her remaining years in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, operating the two theaters she owned. She was also involved in the Congregation of Friendship Baptist Church where her brother was a deacon. She died in 1939 of heart failure. "An obituary in the local paper described the blues singer and businesswoman as a 'housekeeper," de la Croix wrote in Chicago Whispers.

Ma Rainey has inspired more works than Wilson's play.

August Wilson was inspired by Rainey, as were many other artists. After her death, the blues singer Memphis Minnie grieved her death in a song. "People it sure look lonesome since Ma Rainey been gone," she sang.

Rainey continued to figure into lyrics and poetry. In his 1932 poem "Ma Rainey," Sterling A. Brown captured the impact Rainey had on people during her tours to towns around the country. Langston Hughes, in his 1952 poem "Shadow of the Blues," wrote of Rainey, “to tell the truth, if I stop and listen, I can still hear her!” In 1965, Bob Dylan mentioned Ma Rainey alongside Beethoven in his song "Tombstone Blues."

Toward the end of the 20th century, she was credited for her cultural impact on a larger scale. In 1983, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office made a stamp in her honor. The Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts in Columbus, GA is named after her and Carson McCullers.

Daphne Harrison wrote a tribute to Rainey's character in the book Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. "The good-humored, rollicking Rainey loved life, loved love, and most of all loved her people. Her voice bursts forth with a hearty declaration of courage and determination—a reaffirmation of Black life."

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