Viola Davis plays blues legend Ma Rainey in the Netflix film ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’ Ma Rainey was a real-life person who had an immense impact on music.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson, will be released Dec. 18 on Netflix. Oscar winner Viola Davis, 55, stars as the iconic blues singer Ma Rainey alongside Chadwick Boseman in his final film role. Chadwick passed away in Aug. 2020 at the age of 43 after battling pancreatic cancer.

The critically-acclaimed film may be a film adaptation of a play, but Ma Rainey was very much a real person. She had an incredible influence on blues music. The film takes place in a single afternoon in 1927 Chicago as Ma Rainey comes to the studio to make a record. So, who was the real Ma Rainey? HollywoodLife has rounded up 5 key things you need to know.

Viola Davis
Viola Davis stars as the titular character. (Netflix)

1. Ma Rainey is known as the “Mother of the Blues.” Ma Rainey, whose real name was Gertrude Pridgett, was one of the first professional African-American blues singers. She was immensely popular during the 1920s when interest in the blues was at an all-time high. Ma Rainey had an incredibly powerful voice and was recognized for her “moaning” style of singing. The singer didn’t just have an impact on the music world. She inspired African American poets Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, as well as playwright August Wilson.

2. She was bisexual. Ma Rainey married Will Rainey in 1904, and they actually toured as a duo, calling themselves Ma and Pa Rainey. However, Ma was open about her bisexuality and even sang about lesbian relationships. Ma became close with young blues singer Bessie Smith, who was also bisexual. When Ma was arrested by Chicago police for a “sexual dalliance with some of her female dancers,” Bessie bailed her out of jail, according to The New York Times.

3. She died in 1939. The singer’s death was caused by a heart attack. Her age has been disputed, but Ma Rainey was just in her 50s when she passed away in Georgia.

Viola Davis Chadwick Boseman
Viola Davis with director George C. Wolfe and co-star Chadwick Boseman. (Netflix)

4. Ma Rainey had recorded over 90 songs at one point in her career. During a 5-year time period, Ma Rainey recorded 92 songs for Paramount, according to Brittanica. Some of those songs included “Prove It on Me,” “Slave to the Blues,” and “Slow Driving Moan.”

5. She started performing when she was just a teenager. Ma Rainey first performed in public in 1900 at the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Georgia, the NYT reported. She joined a stage show called “The Bunch of Blackberries” and began traveling with vaudeville acts before making it big.