Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was “the mother of the blues,” a genre that helped lay the groundwork for today’s feminist ideals by telling stories of self-determined Black women navigating everyday racism and sexism. She was one of the first Black artists to record for White-owned record labels. And she was an LGBTQ pioneer, openly dating women and cross-dressing in her performances in early-1900s America, as Black people were trying to define what freedom would look like for new generations post-slavery.
Now, Netflix is playing a big role in bringing her key American story into mainstream consciousness with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which begins streaming on the platform Friday. The film — starring Academy Award winner Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and the late Chadwick Boseman in his last role as fictional trumpeter Levee — is adapted from a 1982 play by acclaimed Black playwright August Wilson. But its ’80s origins unfortunately perpetuate an outdated depiction of a queer relationship, one that suggests women only entertained Rainey for her luxurious lifestyle. And it ultimately undermines Rainey’s story as a bisexual icon.
Rainey deserved better. She was a woman who (legend has it) was arrested in Chicago for having an all-female orgy in her house in the 1920s. She dazzled other women with a daredevil persona, advertising her lesbian anthem “Prove It On Me” with an image of herself in a suit, talking to two women while a policeman looked on. This was practically unheard of in 1928, when the song was recorded. Rainey regularly acknowledged she was “ugly” by society’s standards, but she was able to transform herself into a lady magnet as one of her generation’s greatest entertainers.
For these reasons, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” misses a huge opportunity. Explicitly bisexual and lesbian Black women characters are largely absent from American cinema and television. And early queer characters have often been portrayed as less attractive and less aspirational women than their straight counterparts; take as an example bisexual Lynn Searcy in the early 2000s hit “Girlfriends,” who’s portrayed as a frumpy, couch-surfing hippie.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” unfortunately falls into this trend of male filmmakers portraying LGBTQ women as undesirable. The way the script is written, it’s as if Wilson (a straight, light-skinned Black man) couldn’t understand why women would be attracted to a bigger, darker-skinned woman like Rainey. And the way it’s filmed, led by director George C. Wolfe, her character is demanding and mannerless to the point of grotesque. At one point in the film, Rainey slurps down two bottles of Coke so loudly that her bandmates and girlfriend, Dussie Mae, pause to stare in disgust.
Her queer romance gets little time on screen because the film frustratingly gives more screentime to her Black male bandmates; it delves into how they navigate a deceptive White music world. And in the few scenes Ma and Dussie are on screen, the film still manages to offer a cynical explanation for their relationship, painting Dussie as a gold digger attracted to Ma’s lifestyle. The film undermines their connection further by having Dussie secretly hook up with fictional male trumpeter Levee. She repeatedly tells him they can’t date until he gets his own band.
Another Rainey portrayal co-written and directed by Black lesbian filmmaker Dee Rees, thankfully, does better. “Bessie,” HBO’s 2015 Bessie Smith biopic, offers a more nuanced and realistic depiction of Rainey’s queerness, presenting actress Mo’Nique’s character as an older-sister figure to blues legend Bessie Smith, played by Queen Latifah. With this setup, Rainey is the viewer’s introduction to an extravagant 1920s Southern music scene in which Black women owned decked-out tour trains and openly dated other women without fear of violence.
Importantly, along the way, “Bessie” conveys what’s so attractive about Rainey. She makes her own rules on the road and dares anyone to challenge her on them, whipping out a gun with mobster-like flair when threatened. She’s charming, too, making the audience laugh with teasing banter during her cross-dressing performances. In this way, “Bessie” positions Rainey as an early archetype for today’s Black woman ideals, and an early blueprint for freewheeling American rock stars (something that was finally acknowledged when she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990). She isn’t a saint in “Bessie” — the film includes some misogynistic dynamics between Rainey and her playthings — but it still largely succeeds in conveying an extraordinary queer icon’s stereotype-transcending charm.
The film’s success isn’t a surprise, given that “Bessie” director Rees was one of the first breakthroughs when it came to Black lesbian filmmakers (with the coming-of-age indie hit “Pariah” in 2011). Over time, as more Black lesbian filmmakers have made mainstream hits, they’ve brought with them a truer-to-life depiction of characters’ attractiveness and sensuality.
Lena Waithe, with her work on “Twenties” and “Master of None,” is one example. In her autobiographical coming of age story on the “Thanksgiving” episode of “Master of None,” a young Denise defiantly comes to the Thanksgiving table in a baggy tomboy outfit that her mother hates. But the background music during her entrance (Biggie’s verse on Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear”) still invites the viewer to appreciate her flair in the way she sees herself. These kinds of storytelling approaches have ushered in a new era — one in which queer women characters can become sex symbols (like androgynous fan favorite Shane on “The L Word”) or sympathetic heroes fighting for a new world (like Jane in Janelle Monáe’s visual album “Dirty Computer”).
It all adds up to a larger movement that’s now pushing back against the long American tradition of treating Black lesbian relationships as if they’re less legitimate than straight ones. It’s welcome progress, but in order to keep making it, it’s important to call out narratives that miss the mark — especially those that botch the legacy of a queer elder like Ma Rainey in the process.