Ma Rainey fought for her place in Blues as a queer Black woman. Netflix’s new film adaptation Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom explores her legacy.
August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom received the cinematic adaptation of a lifetime this past year. Starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, the film remains true to the play that was conceived in 1978 in Pittsburgh (known to be a part of The Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of 10 plays about Black experiences throughout the 20th century). The film itself is one brimming to the rim with complex inner cultural discourse, brash and unapologetic in its portrayal of the world Rainey managed to survive and thrive in. It also showcases her queerness – and the passion it added to her songs.
The film opens with a lush montage of Davis as Ma Rainey, embodying the spirit of the Blues goddess. We’re shown packed shows in the marginalized corners of the south and the overall feel of Black diasporic celebration is delivered in shimmering awe. After we witness the hurricane that she was, in a flurry of newspaper headlines recalling the Great Migration and the calls for Black southerners to head North for a better life. This cultural exchange saw Blues and other forms of Black music taking the North by storm. So much was the music enjoyed that white corporations began to ravage the Black community with disgraceful offers for their talents. Ma Rainey found “success” in the North with the commodification of race records. Race records were vinyl records containing jazz, blues, gospel and authentically Black music. Segregation prevented the sale of Black music to white audiences, yet the Black community held untapped marketing possibilities for music corporations. This leads us to where the film takes place – at a recording session in Chicago.
The film doesn’t back away from depicting Rainey as her true self. Rainey got her start in the minstrel shows of the south as a teenager. She received her stage name by way of her husband ‘Pa’ Rainey, also a performer in the vaudeville circuit. As her stage presence increased she became immersed in Blues, which in turn made her a household name. At the time, it was customary for white audiences to “enjoy” Black culture via white artists “imitating” the sound. Wilson’s play and the Netflix adaptation highlight this trend of the day, where major companies (Paramount) treated Rainey as a hot-piss diva when she dared to challenge them on their prejudiced behavior. Rainey didn’t take prejudice and misogynoir lightly – from anyone.
In one particular scene, we see the gravity of Rainey’s reputation from her own community. Even within the Black bourgeoisie communities, Rainey is seen as a type of rogue – a woman who could care less about what the world perceived her as. Class hierarchies still exist even within marginalized circles and a conservative outlook on life was a part of the upper echelon of Black society. Blues music was seen as a working class phenomenon and even the talented individuals of the Harlem Renaissance regarded Blues as a low-brow artistic creation. Black Women’s Clubs also emerged at this time, centered on“‘shared certain class assumptions with the white women’s movement.” (Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter).The rejection of hypersexuality was a no-brainer for the ever growing middle class of Black women looking to leave the negative stereotypes behind.
Living in a time where sexual desire for all women was incredibly unspoken of, Ma had the courage to live and fulfill her fantasies as she pleased. She pridefully boasted about her acts of queerness through her music and dared anyone to question it.
Living in a time where sexual desire for all women was incredibly unspoken of, Ma had the courage to live and fulfill her fantasies as she pleased. She pridefully boasted about her acts of queerness through her music and dared anyone to question it. In Angela Davis’ Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, she writes “…sexuality was one of the few realms in which masses of African-American women could exercise autonomy – and thus tangibly distinguish their contemporary status from the history of enslavement.” The equating of sexual purity alongside upward social mobility was the criteria for the new, sophisticated Black woman and Rainey rejected it all.
Rainey came from solid, working class roots and the social criteria for most working Blacks did not include Eurocentric sensibilities. Sexuality is seen as a natural part of life within the Black community and is not necessarily defined as being ‘pornographic’. The condemnation of expressing one’s sexuality came from the desire to separate one’s womanhood away from harmful, racist stereotypes and if one wanted to excel and ‘assimilate’ into (white) society, then cultural change was inevitable. Black women’s bodies have been consitently hypersexualized and sexuality exploited by the trans atlantic slave trade. The body was seen as a commodified entity, an investment for more enslaved Africans for the plantation owner. By refusing to participate in something that is so natural, there is an attempt to reclaim one’s own entity by reinvention. Instead, it enacts suppression of what is a woman’s birthright and ostensibly, ravages one’s cultural connections in pursuit of a higher class bracket.
Rainey was not one for shying away from her true nature, shocking critics with her brazen and laissez faire attitude towards who she really was. That essence of working class, unfiltered realness, was her aesthetic and in truth, what made Rainey so irresistible. Her bisexuality was something that was known but was kept in the dark or held behind closed doors. Famously, she was arrested for hosting a sex party, bailing one of her lovers out of jail.
Her relationship with Bessie Smith was hot and cold, but there remained mutual admiration for each other. Rainey took her under her wings when Bessie was still a teen. Bessie was also bisexual and it could be safe to assume that the two bonded through their shared sexual identities. Their relationship eventually turned sour, though it is difficult to know what ended the friendship. Alas, Bessie was younger and of the newer generation of blues and just like Levee, saw a new world evolving for Black musicians.
While Ma is not the focal piece of the film nor play, her spirit of rebellion and change sets the precedent for the story’s plot – but also reveals that she is aging in an industry that is quickly becoming antiquated, creatively. Levee (Boseman), the youngest member of the troupe, is fired up and ready to take the world by storm. He has the audacity to attempt an override of Ma Rainey’s creative direction. In truth, Levee’s character portrays the issues of misogynoir and patriarchal shortcomings internalized by young, Black men. It’s no secret that while anti-blackness affects our communities, it is also misogynoir that creates divisions within. He flirts with her girlfriend, attempts to have the band break ranks and perform his version of the song, and pitches his own songs to the same record producer that treated Ma like trash.
Levee is young and traumatized, but instead of figuring out where he belongs in the world, he covets everything Ma had worked hard for. After being denied a record contract by the racist record producer, he in turn takes his frustrations out on the only ones who had his best interests at heart. Levee’s thoughts on what it took to bring the white man to his knees was everything Ma had done in the first place. She claimed her power unapologetically and still paid a heavy price for her bravery. In the bitter end, Ma figured out the only way to gain any type of respect from people:fight for it. Ma invested herself in Blackness and the people that made her a star. Levee had every intention to prove her wrong, in defiance of knowing what the white world would take him–as a pawn.
The film crescendos with Ma completing her recording and having to sign away the rights to her songs. Despite her best efforts to retain autonomy over her creative endeavors, the system prevailed again. An all white band is seen in the same recording studio, reaffirming the “separate and unequal” praxis that stoked hatred, jealousy and division between the band mates.
Ma Rainey’s legacy is one that has long deserved a cinematic adaptation. She was and remains a true trailblazer for the likes of many popular Black women musicians, who are able to harness the power of their sexuality and use it as a weapon against white supremacist patriarchal culture. There would be no Lil Kim, Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion or Cardi B if Rainey had not held her ground and stayed true to herself. The “Mother of Blues” ensured that the testimony of the working class woman, the working class creative, would hold everlasting. And while she was not given the flowers that she truly deserved as she lived, Black Bottom is a testament to her skill, courage and iconic art that will have her name on our tongues for generations to come.