Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, released on Netflix on Dec. 18, is already poised for Oscar nominations. With a phenomenal cast and costumes, and an electrifying score, Ma Rainey is a dazzling biopic that follows the real-life "Mother of Blues," Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. Ma, who is portrayed by the infinitely talented Viola Davis, is shown to be a trailblazer in every sense of the word. As a Black woman in the '20s, she captivated her audience with her powerful voice, and demanded the recognition she deserved — and she got it.
Aside from her talent, charisma, and determination, Ma Rainey is also depicted as queer in the movie, with a focus on her girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). But was Ma actually queer? And was Dussie based on a real person?
Was Ma Rainey gay?
It's believed that Ma Rainey was bisexual, due to suggestive lyrics in some of her songs, and the fact that she got busted by the police for hosting a queer orgy. Although Dussie Mae is a fictional character, Ma was romantically linked to Bessie Smith, another queer jazz performer who was her protegé.
However, Ma did marry twice — to men. Her first husband was Will Rainey, to whom she was married for 10 years before they separated. She married again to a younger man, but there are very few details about his name or who he was.
One of Ma's songs, "Prove It on Me Blues" (recorded in 1928) is believed to be a proclamation of her sexual identity:
Where she went, I don't know
I mean to follow everywhere she goes;
Folks say I'm crooked. I didn't know where she took it
I want the whole world to know.
I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan,
Talk to the gals just like any old man.
In regard to what has been described as an "orgy," it was written that she hosted a party in 1925 with all-female guests who were found "indecent" — and Ma had to actually get bailed out of jail the next morning for it. In Chris Albertson's biography of Bessie Smith, he wrote, "[Rainey] and a group of young ladies had been drinking and were making so much noise that a neighbor summoned the police," who came "just as the impromptu party got intimate."
Viola is inspired to be playing such a dynamic character, telling BBC, "We're so used to seeing Black characters defined by white people. And when they're defined by white people, their voice gets taken away, their sexuality gets taken away. They are defined in the image of — take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt — but I'm gonna say it, they are defined in the mindset of the oppressor."
She added, specifically about Ma's freedom to express herself and her sexuality, saying, "When you find a woman like Ma Rainey — she's big, she is bisexual, she's dark skinned. She's all those things ... Usually a character like that is just funny, she's just big. Black and funny. That's it. That, or she's uber maternal."
Taylour Paige, who played Ma's girlfriend, talked to Women's Health on how she was inspired to take on this role of a person who didn't exist.
"There was no person that I picked to really [based her character off of]. I just kind of would pray to my ancestors ... I asked for Ma and August Wilson's blessing, and I just asked for all the powers of the universe to come into me to lend myself to the story — because it's not about me. I play [Ma's] lover, and I'm on this adventure with everybody else."