If you’ve yet to watch the Netflix-produced adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, you are missing out on a moment in Black history—both long past and very recent. While the title evokes one of the great blues singers of nearly a century ago, what is already being considered one of the play’s seminal interpretations showcases the almost otherworldly talents of several of the greatest actors of their respective generations: Viola Davis, Colman Domingo, and Glynn Turman among them—and at the center of it all, Chadwick Boseman, electric in his final performance onscreen.
While much can—and absolutely should—be said of Boseman’s emotional transformation into the talented but tortured trumpeter Levee, the equally dramatic transformation of Viola Davis into the real-life Ma Rainey has rightly sparked conversation of its own. Fully committed to embodying the blues pioneer, Davis both gained weight and wore padding for the role, a choice she discussed in her August cover story for Vanity Fair, saying plainly:
“She was 300 pounds. In Hollywood, that’s a lot….Everybody wants to be pretty, so they’ll say, Ooh, I don’t want to be 300 pounds, can we just ignore that? In my opinion—no. If they say she’s 300 pounds, you have to be 300 pounds, or else you’re not honoring her.”
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, co-star Colman Domingo referenced Davis’ hair and makeup as “at times...grotesque, but it’s completely beautiful.” As her longtime personal makeup artist (and Shondaland veteran) Sergio Lopez-Rivera explains, Davis’ own beauty was obscured at the urging of the actress herself.
“Anyone can tell you that working with Viola Davis is a dream, and that is the truth,” Lopez-Rivera told The Glow Up via email. “As a true character actress, she leaves her vanity at home. She is all in with the process of becoming her character. She is fearless. As a matter of fact, it was Viola, sensing my hesitation at taking this makeup as far as it needed to go, who said to me: ‘Sergio, just think of [Bette Davis] the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
As an old movie buff, it was a directive he could get behind. But as Lopez-Rivera further explained, the makeup design for Ma Rainey was created with several specific objectives in mind: “1) Make Viola Davis ‘disappear,’” he said, noting that: “The gold teeth that Ma Rainey wore were absolutely essential in erasing Viola’s iconic smile. 2) Convey Ma’s efforts to conceal her lack of conventional beauty, and 3) Look like it was melting off her face, which would hopefully deliver the tragic look of a vanishing doll.
“I needed to make this makeup ‘emotional’ and self-applied, which is why Coleman’s description is perfect: grotesque and beautiful,” he added.
Turning one icon into another of course involved extensive research, which Lopez-Rivera found in Sandra Lieb’s biography Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey, another Davis recommendation.
“I had much to learn about the beauty industry in that time, and what was and was available for women of color, which was very little,” he said. “While the cosmetic industry was thriving, almost no product catered to women of color.”
Recreating Rainey’s grease-painted look in this century, Lopez-Rivera had ample options, shouting out Iman, MAC and Pat McGrath for “changing the game” in providing shades suited for Black skin. “All the products I used on Viola/Ma are products that you may find at Sephora or department stores today, but I played with the application to give the makeup a ‘jittery’ DIY feeling,” he explained. His “star items” included Black female-owned Danessa Myricks’ Colorfix cream eyeshadows and glaze he used “to create the ‘melting tar’ quality of [Ma Rainey’s] eye makeup,” while Blinc’s ultra-thin liquid eyeliner pen helped him “create almost microscopic eyebrow hair and stubble dots around Ma’s drawn-in eyebrows.” To create the “‘doll-like’ rosy cheeks” and the appearance of hyperpigmentation, he relied on a Broadway and Hollywood staple, a cream color wheel by Ben Nye.
However, the real magic was in the application, noted Lopez-Rivera. “I decided to put away my makeup brushes and use only my fingers. The result is bleary and melting, which served the character of Ma Rainey beautifully...That is why I call this makeup ‘emotional,’ because there’s a tragic element to the application that is a reflection of the efforts the Ma had to make in order to feel seen and respected,” he explained. “The makeup helps the audience connect to her vulnerability—at least, that’s my hope.”
Working closely with Lopez-Rivera was Makeup Department Head Matiki Anoff (Fences, Spider-Man: Far From Home, The Wiz Live!), who faced the monumental task of not only cohesively rendering Ma, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and the band, but the entire cast of the production as envisioned by award-winning director George C. Wolfe and costume designer Ann Roth.
“In terms of my research, I felt our goal was to successfully recreate 1927 Chicago, prioritizing the disparity of class and race without those factors weighing heavily or overly impressing the fabric of the scenes,” explained Anoff in her email to The Glow Up. “[Wolfe and Roth’s] collective visions were more about the emotions of each character, what they were up to, and how they held their space on celluloid. They also wanted to create an atmosphere filled with authenticity, grit, and sweat.
“The biggest factor I would say is that Ma Rainey had to out-sweat everybody,” said Anoff. “George and Ann both wanted everyone sweating, so that was really the challenge, to balance everybody with their degrees of sweat—with the exception of Dussie, who connived how she was going to improve her life. She’s really the only character who doesn’t sweat. The proprietors [of ] the establishment are sweating because they can’t get Ma to behave. The band is sweating because they’re playing or fighting. [Ma’s nephew] Sylvester’s sweating because he has a stammer, but Ma out-sweated them all,” she added.
Another set of details to consider? “De-modernizing the talent...People were cast for their talent, especially the dancers, so we didn’t know who was going to come in, and had to be prepared for anything,” Anoff continued, listing piercings, microbladed brows, tattoos, and gel and acrylic nails among the challenges she and Key Makeup Artist Carl Fullerton (co-producer Denzel Washington’s personal artist) encountered, along with a team of 20 makeup artists led by Background Makeup Supervisor Debi Young (Watchmen, Queen Sugar, True Detective).
“You can’t make a period film without that kind of personnel,” said Anoff, later adding, “You are nothing without your team, and you are only as good as your team, and my team came to play and they played hard...They are phenomenal. We finish each other’s sentences, and that makes for a great behind the scenes crew. That’s how we achieved everything so successfully, and I’m eternally grateful to them.”
“Every single person is a principal in a period piece,” Anoff explained, noting nuances like distinguishing the makeup of the country cast, which she described as “a lot more stripped-down, just due to a lack of access at the time,” from that of “the city ladies,” who were made to look “more glamorous and fair-skinned.”
Drama Desk Award-winning Hair Department Head Mia Neal (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Top Five; Broadway’s Shuffle Along and A Raisin in the Sun) made similar distinctions while building approximately 100 wigs with Key Hair Stylist Leah Loukas and an intentionally tiny team (to preserve continuity in styling). “We had country girls who were laborers with more textured and processed hair, some of them in roller sets,” said Neal. “When we see city girls, they’re a lot more polished. You see that in their complete aesthetic...There’s a drastic difference in what they had access to, and you see that in their hair.”
The process, incredibly accomplished within two-and-a-half weeks, included giving texture to stock wigs of European hair by perming them with stirring straws, before cutting and styling them into a variety of 1920s styles and silhouettes. Others were hand-built—including one which required combining two wigs to conceal a dancer’s long dreadlocks. Concurrently, set barber Tywan Williams (Power, BlacKkKlansman, She’s Gotta Have It) completed all 400 men’s haircuts aside from the main band by himself, often during cast fittings.
“He stayed at the fittings because it was so specific,” Neal explained. “It was important that he was present at the costume fittings to make sure we could make that person’s hair into 1927.”
To coif Davis’ transformation into Ma Rainey, Neal, in collaboration with Ann Roth, relied on materials and techniques authentic to both the period and the woman herself.
“We stuck to the photos and research of her, and the descriptions people gave of her,” said Neal. “This is a woman who was larger than life, a queer woman in 1927. There’s something about her that’s going to stand out, regardless. It’s about trying to be authentic to the descriptions we have about Ma Rainey, and Viola did an outstanding job with making all of these elements around her real.”
Those elements included wearing a “show” wig made of horsehair (as Rainey typically wore) as well as a second personal wig made of European hair, more reflective of Ma’s own wealth and finery. “She’s going to have the furs, the jewelry, the gold teeth, the ring, and a pretty young thing on her arm. And, she’s going to have the waves in her hair like the white women have in the magazines, so that wig helps with the persona of her stature in society,” Neal noted.
With the horsehair, however, came a swift learning curve; Neal explained that she “figured out through the process why Ma Rainey wore a horsehair wig—horsehair has memory, like a synthetic wig. Once you set it, you don’t have to reset it, and it keeps its shape. With her being on the road, she needed a wig that would be ready for showtime. At that time, not all salons would service people of color, so this was Ma’s best option.”
In lieu of the heavy grease and pomades of the era, Neal relied on hair gel and oils to give Ma’s wigs more control on set. But what she couldn’t have anticipated was that the horsehair, sourced from Etsy, would arrive covered in manure and lice, making for a tedious wig building process. “I had to boil it several times to wash that out,” she cringingly shared, adding, “It also was nothing like human hair—it was more like a wire brush...the strands were so thick that only one would fit through the lace at a time, so the entire wig was single-strand.”
If those imperceptible details added untold depth to the 94 minutes of richly rendered cinema that was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, so too did the predominantly Black hair and makeup department responsible for helping to bring its vision to life. While Wilson’s play is a work of fiction (not a Rainey biopic, as some have mistakenly presumed), some of the very real issues it grapples with are representation and creative control—specifically, whether Black talent is valued equally on and off-screen. While Anoff and Neal credit Roth, Wolfe, and producers Washington and Todd Black (along with Dany Wolf and Executive Producer Constanza Romero) with giving them each the opportunity to helm their respective departments, Neal says it’s Netflix that has “single-handedly changed the game.”
“I don’t know if they set out to do it, but they did it,” she said. “The way that film has always gone, everything has to go through a studio for approval...so they have these strict boundaries, which have been made by people who don’t look like us. As a result of that, a lot of times these stories are being told with so many filters that it’s not us anymore.
“Netflix is really the first platform that’s recognized and respected the fact that we’re all artists, and gives us the resources that we need to create,” she continued. “We’re able to tell meaningful stories.”
“Netflix is showing that people of all colors like Black stories, so long as it’s a good story,” said Anoff, before adding, “This was a labor of love.”