There's no question Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is one of the biggest Netflix movies of 2020. With stand-out performances from Hollywood stars like Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, the historical musical is bound to make a big splash come awards season. But viewers may be wondering, is Ma Rainey's Black Bottom based on a true story? Technically yes, but it's mostly based on a play.
In both the play and the new film, the story centers on the tensions that erupt between real-life performer Ma Rainey (played here by Davis), her band, and their controlling white studio managers during a Chicago recording session in 1927.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson was inspired to write the 1982 Ma Rainey's Black Bottom stage production after becoming captivated by the singer's musical legacy. Known as the "Mother of Blues," the artist's flashy stage presence and larger-than-life voice notably inspired other music greats such as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. She also openly sang about her bisexuality and attraction to women in the early 20th century, making her a particularly important figure in LGBTQ+ music history.
Although Ma Rainey's recording contract with Paramount only lasted from 1923 to 1928, she transformed the blues genre by releasing over 100 songs during that time. In fact, according to the New York Times, she essentially pioneered the music style by combining elements of Southern Black folk music and vaudeville.
Wilson himself was intrigued by her contributions to blues music and the opportunities that it allotted to African American musicians.
"There was a nobility in the lives of Blacks in America which I didn't always see... After I discovered the blues, I began to look at the people in the [rooming] house a little bit differently than I had before," Wilson later wrote of his research into the genre.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was the sum of that research — the title "Black Bottom" is even inspired by the dance trend she inspired in the 1920s. Notably Wilson's first Broadway show, it delves into what it was like for a Black female musician to maintain autonomy over her art and career in the face of larger commercial forces — an issue artist of color in particular still deal with to this day.
"They don't care nothing about me. All they want is my voice," Rainey says at one point in the story, after her producer and manager accuse her of being a diva for protesting their demands. "Well, I done learned that, and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no matter how much I hurt them."
Even though the singer was forced to contend with a lot as a Black woman making her way through the white, male-dominated music industry, this story reinforces how her groundbreaking point of view deserves to be spotlighted.
Fans of Wilson's work have more to look forward to, since Ma Rainey's Black Bottom producer Denzel Washington has a deal with Netflix to bring nine of the late writer's plays to Netflix as movies.
"I'm just here to take care of this man's work, put the best actors and directors around it, and to make the movies," Washington told CBS News.
As it turns out, celebrating Rainey's story is just the start.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is on Netflix now.