The Hair and Makeup Team Behind ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ on Making Oscars History
During the wardrobe fitting for Netflix’s adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, lead actor Viola Davis challenged her glam squad to remove vanity from her transformation into becoming the legendary blues singer. She encouraged them to “do it scared.”

That tip from the Oscar winner paid off. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s hair department lead Mia Neal, Davis’s personal hairstylist Jamika Wilson, and Davis’s makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera are up for one of the film’s five Academy Award Nominations this year. Davis earned her fifth career nomination—the most ever for a Black female actor—for portraying someone whom contemporaries called the ugliest woman in show business, and Neal and Wilson became the first African American women nominated in the hair and makeup category.

“Viola gave us all permission to just really focus on the character, not on Viola,” says Neal, a Juilliard alumnus like Davis. “She wasn’t worried about how she personally appeared on camera. She wanted us to give the same experience to our audience that Ma Rainey had.”

Everyone doing the How to Get Away With Murder star’s hair and makeup started their individual research on the so-called mother of the blues after costume designer Ann Roth’s team shared the fewer than 10 photographs that exist of the feisty, openly lesbian 1920-era entertainer. Because information on Rainey was scarce, each relied on details and facts about the Roaring Twenties to accurately depict Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright August Wilson’s singular work.

Neal learned from Roth, another Oscar nominee this year, that Rainey wore horsehair wigs when performing, but the wirelike strands imported from England arrived at Neal covered in manure and lice eggs. Making matters worse, the follicles were too thick to fit through more than one lace, doubling the amount of time it normally takes Neal to make her fully ventilated, finely hair-lined signature pieces by hand. Neal, a Drama Desk Award winner for hair and wigs in Shuffle Along, covered herself and her work area completely in plastic, oiled the hair numerous times, and used every cleaner she could get her hands on to sanitize the coarse mane. Later she boiled it. The strands softened and held their curl once dry, indicating to Neal why Rainey wore that kind of wig. “It’s like today’s synthetic hair because it holds a set,” says Neal, who also worked on Broadway productions of Julius Caesar, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Iceman Cometh. “She was a Black woman traveling during the 1920s. She couldn’t get serviced in every salon, so she had to have something in her bag that was ready to go for her performance.”

Neal, the designer of Oprah Winfrey’s wigs for 2017’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, created 100 wigs for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in less than three weeks, including the two Davis wore. She also made sure the background actors’ hairlines, hair textures, and color complemented the period piece.

Wilson, Davis’s hairstylist since 2008 following her role in Doubt, styled and applied Neal’s wigs to the star each day while protecting the custom wigs from the humidity in Pittsburgh, where the film was shot. “It was a team effort from everyone from the beginning to the end,” she says. 

She considers her Oscar nomination an “out-of-body experience.”

“My mind is totally blown,” adds Wilson, who was the hair department lead for How to Get Away With Murder and has also styled hair for Rihanna, Taraji P. Henson, and Donatella Versace. “I really can’t believe it. It’s such an honor and blessing. It wasn’t my goal to be a nominee for an award—it was to go to work and do my best. I’m going to do my best to bring myself back into my body so I can just enjoy the moment.”

Lopez-Rivera has been Davis’s makeup artist since How to Get Away With Murder premiered in 2014. He came up with her character’s gold teeth, runny eyeshadow, and smeared cheek rouge with lipstick. He had no idea who Rainey was when Davis asked him to be part of the film.

So Lopez-Rivera—who’s done the faces of Audra McDonald, Allison Janney, Anika Noni Rose, and Reese Witherspoon—used his pinky finger to tap, rub, and draw all over Davis’s face. He intentionally made one eyebrow higher to avoid creating symmetry or perfection. The BAFTA Award nominee relied on oral histories his grandmother often shared with him about women during the Spanish Civil War using burned wine corks and grease to make their own eyeshadow.

Rainey, a wealthy woman who wore furs and jewels regardless of the season, did her own makeup at every tour stop. “I wanted to incorporate this DIY quality to Viola and her character,” says Lopez-Rivera. “Our job was to erase the 21st century from Viola. When every department treats this material the same way—with the same curiosity, authenticity, and willingness to be very specific—this is what you get: a movie that’s so textured, authentic, and beautiful.”

Receiving the Oscar nomination is a shared proud moment between Neal, Wilson, and Lopez-Rivera. They’re grateful that they trusted Davis’s request. Whether they win or not, the trio hopes the honor will inspire more Black and brown creatives and those from underrepresented communities to seek out the possibilities that exist behind the scenes in entertainment.

“The possibilities are endless, and this nomination proves that,” Neal confirms. “Evolution is inevitable, and it’s happening. Any African American or young person of color going into this field should know people do want diversity. Erase your own fears, doubts, and preconceived notions. You are wanted, and you will be welcomed. Go in and work hard because there is space for you, and we’re living examples of that.”


This article was sourced from Christopher A. Daniel from Vogue Magazine


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