Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has won two Academy Awards for costume design and make up and hairstyling. The movie, about the sidelining of African American musical traditions, made history with both its wins.
At 91, Ann Roth is the oldest costume designer to win an Oscar. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson emerged as the first African American women to win the Oscar for hair and makeup. They shared the Oscar with Sergio Lopez-Rivera.
Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman earned nominations in the lead actor categories. The Netflix release is dedicated to Boseman, who died from cancer on August 28, 2020.
George C Wolfe’s film is adapted from August Wilson’s stage musical and is based on blues singer Ma Rainey. Among the themes in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the nature of creation and collaboration and the appropriation of Black musical talent by White producers and record labels.
The main event is a recording session with Ma Rainey (Davis) and her band in 1927. Among the musicians is young trumpeter Levee Green (Boseman), who wants to make his own music and riles his band mates with his cockiness.
The supporting cast includes Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts as members of Ma Rainey’s band.
A diva to the hilt, Ma Rainey turns up late for the session, insists on including her stuttering nephew in a recording, and squabbles with her manager and producer. Meanwhile, Levee flirts with Ma Rainey’s girlfriend Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige).
Ann Roth created a wig made out of horsehair for Viola Davis, she told Variety. Ma Rainey’s shimmering and bold costumes were made according to singing legend Aretha Franklin’s measurements.
The research by Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson included consulting period photographs of Ma Rainey.
“One of the things that’s tricky, more for makeup than for hair, is when you’re filming with Black people and white people in the same scene, usually someone is compromised,” Mia Neal told Deadline. “Like, either Black people look a little ashy, or the whites look washed out. It’s hard to make everyone look beautiful, or real…”
Among the questions make-up artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera asked was, “…who was this woman? And the other research was the world she lived in. You know, what was going on at the time, in the country? What was her level of freedom, in terms of women’s rights? As an African-American woman, what was available to her? What were the hurdles? All of that socioeconomic [background]. You know, what was her ability? What was her education? What is her psyche?”
Sergio Lopez-Rivera also used Bette Davis’s melting-face effect – in which the make-up runs off the face – for Viola Davis, he told Deadline.