Netflix has released a trailer for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a new film starring Viola Davis as pioneering queer blues singer Ma Rainey.
Rainey, widely known as the mother of the blues, forged a lucrative early career in the 1920s while peppering her songs with references to her sexuality, more than 40 years before the Stonewall riots brought queer issues into the mainstream.
The film, a semi-fictionalised drama set largely during a single recording session, marks the final on-screen appearance of the late Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman, who appears as an antagonistic trumpeter with an eye for Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae, played by Taylour Paige.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom stars Viola Davis as ‘trailblazing’ queer blues singer
A synopsis says: “Tensions and temperatures rise over the course of an afternoon recording session in 1920s Chicago as a band of musicians await trailblazing performer, the legendary Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey (Academy Award winner Viola Davis).
“Late to the session, the fearless, fiery Ma engages in a battle of wills with her white manager and producer over control of her music.
“As the band waits in the studio’s claustrophobic rehearsal room, ambitious trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) — who has an eye for Ma’s girlfriend and is determined to stake his own claim on the music industry — spurs his fellow musicians into an eruption of stories revealing truths that will forever change the course of their lives.”
A release adds: “Adapted from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom celebrates the transformative power of the blues and the artists who refuse to let society’s prejudices dictate their worth.”
The adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play is helmed by the legendary out Angels in America director George C. Wolfe, with producers including Denzel Washington.
Director notes pioneering legacy of singer, who sang of love for women and rejection of men
In a director’s note, Wolfe explained: “Ma Rainey, as crafted by playwright August Wilson, breaks a number of rules, including those of August Wilson himself.
“She is the only character in August’s magnificent ten play cycle, chronicling the African American existence during the twentieth century, who is based on a real person.
“She is also the only LGBTQ character — Ma was an out lesbian, who in her song “Prove It on Me” unabashedly proclaims: ‘Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. Must have been women cause I don’t like men’.”
The blues singer married vaudeville singer William ‘Pa’ Rainey in 1904, aged 18, but separated from him just over a decade later in 1916. She went on to have a number of female lovers, said to include fellow blues legend Bessie Smith, before her death at the age of 53 in 1939.
Variously labelled by modern sources as a lesbian or bisexual, Ma Rainey’s music makes references to a forceful rejection of men as well as her attraction to women. Her track “Bo-Weevil Blues” includes the lyrics: “I don’t want no man, to put no sugar in my tea, some of them are so evil, I’m ‘fraid they might poison me.”
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set to be released on Netflix on December 18 – a week after another hotly-anticipated queer film, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of lesbian musical The Prom, hits the streaming platform on December 11.