Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Reviewed by Ramona S Baker

Ramona Baker Reviews ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Character Posters For Ma Rainey’s Black

Character Posters For Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
There were few strong-willed businesswomen of the 1920’s, but one of the most widely spoken of in the last year was certainly Ma Rainey. This year, there has been much more talk of the 1920’s, and we have the film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” to thank for it. This film has kicked up the curiosity of new and old listeners alike. Despite the film being an adaptation of a play, it still seems to capture some things about early recording studios that few have done before it. While everyone was fawning over Chadwick Boseman, the record collectors were shaking themselves over the attention to detail within the background and minor details. 

Even with all the negative comments from serious historians, the most striking element of the film was the attention to detail with the costumes. Any costume historian could tell you that such bright and gaudy colors were appropriately exhibited in the film, and the hairstyles all seemed to match. To clothing historians and collectors it was a feast for the eyes, the atmosphere was enlightened by the bright dresses and subdued men’s suits. Even the makeup matched the dress styles.
The glowing nature of Ma’s outfits rightfully reflects her famous trendsetting tastes in fashion. She stands out in the way that she did in her time, both inside and out of the studios. Despite the marvellous costumes, it could be difficult to watch for the serious historians out there. It could be considered a crime that in the original play and the film Ma Rainey herself was not the center of the plot and storyline.

If you spend any amount of time researching her, the real life she lived was quite intriguing and complicated. She was one of the great strong headed businesswomen of her time, and it goes back. She was no spring chicken upon the first batch of records she made for Paramount, as she had been performing for 20 years by then.Rabbit Foot Minstrels Advert and Ma Rainey Advertisements courtesy of Smithsonian NMAAHC

She married all the way back in 1904, and claimed that she had been first exposed to the blues around the same time. Recent discoveries from rag-time historians can definitively prove the existence of the 12 bar blues being published around this time, bringing merit to such claims. Her style wasn’t anything new within the music business. Her troupe, “The Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels” proved that she was a capable leader, and an influencer in just how she was. Bessie Smith was said to have been greatly inspired by Ma’s hearty and expressive style, as well as her overt queer mannerisms. 

All this experience proved her well when J. Mayo Williams “discovered” her talents in 1923. There had been previous collaborations between white executives and black performers in the recording business, but Ma was unlike the others. She knew what was what, and how to get her way, even if it meant pushing aside white folks and black folks. Remarkably, without her accomplishments being fully acknowledged in the film, this aspect of her character was captured rather well with her insistence in handling the white engineers.
Fred Hager being one of them, were rather frightened by such a strong and determined woman. No doubt Bessie took some tips from Ma, and the influence was strong. Ma was no different, though her previous experience in show business was at least a little more attractive to the white executives.

Bessie Smith poses for a portrait circa 1925. Frederick W. Hager, 1898.Photo uncredited. - Phonoscope Vol. 2, No. 9 (September 1898)The real Ma Rainey and actress Viola Davis .History v

Mayo Williams should have been included in the film. Such a dynamic would be difficult but fascinating to depict. This business relationship would be much different than that of what is normally depicted in film. Much like other black businessmen of the time, such as Perry Bradford and James Reese Europe, Mayo Williams a shrewd worker.
It was big shoes to fill for him in finding talent for Paramount, as all the previous “A and R” men for recording companies had been white men, usually publishers or musicians. This determination set forth by performers like Ernest Hogan paved the way for Mayo Williams, working with and around the white elites to make their money, yet at the same time promoting the best black talent there was. Executives of any race and gender could be shrewd in the jazz age, and bringing Mayo Williams into such a biopic on Rainey could be a great and unusual look into just how complicated race relations really were in the music business at the end of the acoustic era. 

With all this in mind, it can be difficult to sit and watch for the serious historians out there.

Madame “Ma” Rainey With Lovie Austin And Her Blues Serenaders Tommy Ladnier (cor) Jimmy O’Bryant (cl) Lovie Austin (p) Ma Rainey (vo) Chicago, IL, December, 1923.1596-2 Bad Luck Blues Paramount 12081; Riverside (H) RM 8807.

However, as mentioned before, the one thing that can truly capture the eyes and hearts of collectors and historians who watch this film are the two recording engineers.
While the specific record company is not given in the play or the film, it almost seems that the directors were going for a company like Okeh. These two engineers seemed to match the age of typical record executives in the 1920’s.
Surely some of you have heard of Eddie King? He is mostly known for being the executive who cursed out Bix Beiderbecke. Born in 1868, he was one of the most important recording engineers of the acoustic and early electric era, starting as a studio percussionist to make his way up to the highest management of the Victor talking machine company.  Never has there been such a close portrayal to this infamous phonograph figure as in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. 

 The chief engineer in the film fit the period descriptions of King very well, short, pear shaped, and rather unattractive in the face, and also slightly short tempered. For the collectors out there we can only hope that this might not be the last time we see an Eddie King like figure depicted in film. Despite his generally unsavoury reputation, his presence deserves to be depicted on screen. At least it was a treat to see a character unknowingly cast a lot like Mr. King.

Then there is the other engineer, the more aggressive but slightly younger one depicted in the film. His light and unassuming hairstyle seems remarkably similar to that of Eddie King’s fellow OKeh engineer Justin Ring(born Justus Ringleben).While the character in the film is much more outgoing and hustling Ma and her band, Justin Ring was exactly the opposite characteristically. Even the essence of the character’s style was similar to that of Ring. There are period photographs of Ring in the Okeh studio dressed just like that while conducting the orchestra or managing talent. And of course who could forget the detailed shots of the lathes cutting into the wax.  What a feast for the eyes.
Few films other than documentaries have brought into the story a very accurate demonstration of how records were cut at that time. Even being able to observe how the weights helped drive and keep the speed constant. As depicted in the film, keeping these weights level and balanced was difficult, and there are many period accounts of this. Even with all the film’s faults, the reality and difficulty with operating and cutting records of the late acoustic and early electric era was exceptionally exhibited. Even for those who haven’t as much knowledge of the technology at the time could be rightfully educated by the few frames in this film. 

All in all, the film was a bit of a mess for those historians watching and taking notes. The costume designer deserves all the accolades they can get, few films set in the 1920’s have gotten the color palette right, at least in recent times. There is a lot to complain about with the plot, but there’s not enough space here to even mention the race driven plotline with the generational gap between the old band members and the younger Chadwick Boseman character.
Though some of this is essential to address, it is more essential that Ma Rainey get the spotlight she deserves, and surely would have wanted herself. It is truly a shame that in such a great opportunity as this film which got so much press and media attention, that such an iconic and influential woman as Ma Rainey wasn’t the star of the show.

Newly discovered and as yet uncredited picture of Ma Rainey

Newly discovered and as yet uncredited picture of Ma Rainey , Courtesy of RS Baker
The eventful and difficult life she lived deserves much better than this play to film adaptation. If you really want to get a better idea, just listen to the records! The best transfers you can hear are certainly on the Document label, and the notes are extremely well researched and informative. Leave it to them to undo any sins committed by Hollywood! At least for record collectors, any press is good press, whether it be an accurate depiction or not, it seems more people we know have been mentioning Ma Rainey in the last year than in many years. She was an unbelievable pioneer in her day, more so than some people may realize, for straight, black, white, gay, and female alike. Her voice continues to live on..
Here is the song that inspired the Play and the Film 

Ma Rainey’s Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order can be found on these Document  albums below

DOCD-5581-Ma Rainey-Complete Recorded Works.Vol.1 1923 – 1924

Multi-talented Ramona S. Baker is the daughter of Clint Baker (“Preserving the Fire of Early Jazz,” TST, June 2020) and sister of Riley Baker (“Swingin’ in the Golden State,” TST, September 2020). She is a pianist, historian, collector, artist, and a contributing writer to The Syncopated Time
Hey there record scholars! I am R.S. Baker, a cartoonist, scholar, and collector of the earliest sound recordings. I've studied recordings from 1888 to 1920 for nearly a decade. My most focused interest lies in the studio pianists and musicians, such as Fred Hylands, Frank P. Banta, Justin Ringleben, etc. Enjoy the reading!
Latest posts by Ramona Baker (see all)
1 Comment
  • Donald Gray J. Seubert 1 year ago Reply

    Wish to call, please do. Grandson of James A. Hager, drummer, and his brother Robert Hager, Laughing Waters. I live in my grandfather’s 3 room retirement home on Long Island. Home since expanded! Please contact. My grandfather was a fine baseball player beyond a good drummer.