'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom': Is Ma Rainey a real person? Viola Davis' role is based on this famous blues singer

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom', the Netflix movie starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, centers on depicting the life of blues singer Ma Rainey


                            'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom': Is Ma Rainey a real person? Viola Davis' role is based on this famous blues singer
Ma Rainey and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels with Ed Pollock, Albert Wynn, Thomas A. Dorsey (on piano at right), Dave Nelson and Gabriel Washington (Getty Images)

Born as Gertrude Pridgett in 1886, Ma Rainey inspired an entire generation of blues singers by bridging vaudeville into authentic southern blues. This was her specializing -- to combine theatrics with music and that is also what audiences loved about her. However, what she did become popular for, was her exciting lyrics that proclaimed her bisexuality proudly. It was quoted in the biography 'Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey' by Sandra Lieb that Ma Rainey "offered to whites a glimpse into a black culture far less obscured by white expectations, and offered to blacks a more direct affirmation." 

It was through her music that she managed to make Black female autonomy a mainstream conversation. This was far removed from the victorian norms that were already set up among the white population. Ma Rainey's lyrics, which were anything but conservative was considered to be a lot more exotic and she had managed to interlace blues with much of her feminism. Each of her songs featured characters of women who did not let themselves become dependent on a man and also made choices that were truly independent of the law and the social construct. This was also where Ma Rainey was believed to have proclaimed her bisexuality by the singing of women who were attracted to women. 

One of the things about Ma Rainey, in the film that came to Netflix this week, is the makeup that she wears. It is smudged, not your garden variety pretty, and definitely not put together. Yet, Ma Rainey owned it and it was reported that the singer believes that she was ugly. However, that did not stop her from getting on the stage or performing on stage. After having started quite young in the tent-circus circuit, Ma Rainey had a deep understanding of the theatrical value and that is why she was able to combine the burlesque style into southern blues. 

When Ma Rainey claimed that she was from Georgia and it was believed that she was born in 1886, according to the 1900 census registry she is listed as belonging to Alabama, born Gertrude Pridgett, the second of five children to Thomas and Ella Pridgett. Ma Rainey's first country blues inclusion to her repertoire happens to be about heartbreak and the song was something that she had heard a fellow performer in Missouri sing on the night as she played her guitar. The haunting melody enthralled Ma Rainey and she began to travel through the South where she came across more country music blues that were later included in her repertoire. It was in 1923 that Ma Rainey traveled to Chicago to record her music for the first time, and this is the time period in Ma Rainey's life that the movie portrays. 

Beyond her music, Ma Rainey's bisexuality and her relationship with one of the chorus singers with whom she traveled to perform are all things that are remembered when speaking of the 'Mother of Blues'. The Netflix film starring Viola Davis as Ma Rainey tries to capture not the life lived by her but the hearts that she captured and who she was -- to the audience and to her fellow singers. Small nuances like Ma Rainey hating to be away from the spotlight, like when Levee (Chadwick Boseman) improvises on a stretch as he plays his trumpet. For a moment, just for a moment, the spotlight is away from Ma Rainey and she doesn't look happy about it. Not only the smaller nuances of her character but also the larger movements that Ma Rainey ended up becoming a part of by writing the songs that she did are also used creatively in the film to depict the life of this blues singer. 

'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' can be streamed on Netflix from December 18. 

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