Is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom based on a true story?

Everything you need to know about the facts behind the new Netflix film.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020)

This December a new film arrives on Netflix based on August Wilson’s Tony-nominated 1982 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

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The film is noteworthy for a number of reasons, not least because it includes the final screen performance of Chadwick Boseman, who tragically passed away earlier this year after a secret battle with colon cancer.

And while the script for the film is based on Wilson’s play, that play itself took its inspiration from real life, and specifically the life of the eponymous central character, pioneering Blues musician Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis in the film).

Read on for everything you need to know about the true story behind the film.

Who was Ma Rainey?

Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey
Getty

Born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia in 1886, Ma Rainey was one of the first African-American professional blues singers, and for a long time after her death she was largely overlooked despite her hugely influential status.

Nicknamed, “Mother of the Blues”, she made her first recording in 1923, and over the course of the subsequent five years recorded more than 100 songs.

She continued to tour until 1935, three years before her death, and recorded with Thomas Dorsey, Louis Armstrong and the Georgia Jazz Band at various points in her career.

In 2019, a piece in the New York Times aimed to set the record straight regarding her influence, claiming that fellow Blues pioneers Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith would not “have sung the way they did without the influence of Rainey”.

It added that she “was the first entertainer to successfully bridge the divide between vaudeville — the cabaret-style shows that developed out of minstrelsy in the mid-1800s, and catered largely to white audiences — and authentic black Southern folk expression”.

Is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom based on a true story?

The film – and Wilson’s play – follows an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago, and chronicles the rising tensions between Rainey and her white manager and producer as they fight for control of her music.

At the same time, a trumpeter named Levee (Boseman) who is also trying to stake his claim on the music industry, leads the band in an “eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives”.

Now, while Rainey is obviously a real figure, the script itself is a work of fiction, and the band members and other supporting characters are Wilson’s inventions.

But while no such recording session took place – at least not one exactly like this – that doesn’t necessarily mean that the story doesn’t have its basis in real life.

The themes of racial tension explored in the film and the struggles for creative power that the script depicts were very true of the 1920s.

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is streaming on Netflix from 18th December 2020. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best TV series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide