Loved ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’? Here’s your essential further viewing

Here's our pick of biopics and documentaries telling Black stories and stories about the South

In Partnership with Netflix 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, on Netflix on December 18, has won critical acclaim for its depiction of the formidable ‘Mother Of The Blues’, played by Viola Davis, and her battle of wills with upstart trumpet player Levee, played by Chadwick Boseman, in a white world that’s hostile to each of them. If you were captivated by its period setting, music, themes and character insight, you might want to check out these movies next.

Bessie (2015)

Queen Latifah plays bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith, whose great success happened against a background of prejudice and turbulence. Ma Rainey, Smith’s mentor, appears as a supporting character played by Precious star Mo’Nique.
Watch it: Prime Video

Ray (2004)

Ray Charles at the piano (Getty)

Jamie Foxx won the five major Best Actor awards – at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, Screen Actors Guild, and Critics’ Choice – for his portrayal of rhythm & blues legend Ray Charles in this celebrated biopic.
Watch it: Prime Video

Self-Made (2004)

Octavia Spencer stars as Madam C. J. Walker, America’s first Black, female self-made millionaire, in a four-part miniseries charting her journey from washer woman to hair care mogul.
Watch it: Netflix

Lady Sings the Blues (1972)

Billie Holiday’s immense talent as a singer took her from a tough life cleaning brothels in Baltimore to the Harlem stage, but trouble was never far behind. Diana Ross, pictured in character as Holiday above, earned a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards for her performance.
Watch it: YouTube

Walk The Line (2005)

Johnny Cash (Getty)

The music of the South – albeit the white variety – once again proves rich cinematic fodder in this biopic of outlaw country star Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter-Cash (Reece Witherspoon).
Watch it: YouTube

Hidden Figures (2016)

Astrophysics isn’t necessarily the sexiest subject matter for a movie, but this movie telling the long-overlooked story of the contribution of three black, female mathematicians to NASA’s first trip into space, showed that the action on the ground was just as compelling as that in the upper atmosphere.
Watch it: Disney +

ReMastered: The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke (2019)

Sam Cooke (Getty)

This documentary questions whether the untimely death at age 33 of soul’s golden boy, Sam Cooke – the man who gave us ‘Twisting The Night Away’ among many others – may have been related to his increasing activism and involvement in the Civil Rights movement.
Watch it: Netflix

What’s Love Got Got To Do With It (1993)

To a certain generation, Tina Turner will always be your dad’s worst decision for a fancy dress party costume, circa 1989. If that’s you, this film, depicting her emancipation from abusive husband Ike, struggle with drugs and journey of self-empowerment, will rightly reframe her as one of the all-time greats.
Watch it: Prime Video

Bird (1988)

Charlie Parker, with sax (Getty)

Whatever your feelings about the libertarian (lapsed) Trump supporter Clint Eastwood, you can’t knock his movie telling the story of genius but drug dependent jazz saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, played by the always-brilliant Forest Whitaker.
Watch it: YouTube

Miles Ahead (2015)

Miles Davis (Getty)

In this biopic of Miles Davis (played here by Dominic West), facts are freeform and life is lived in the notes left out, but would a movie about one of the most experimental musicians to have ever lived if it were filmed another way?
Watch it: Netflix

The Cotton Club (1984)

Francis Ford Coppola set this ‘20s gangster story at New York City nightspot The Cotton Club, capturing the blend of etiquette, excess and lawlessness you may have experienced at one of Ma Rainey’s many contemporary club performances.
Watch it: Prime Video

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

Nina Simone (Getty)

This compelling documentary about the singular Nina Simone charts her journey from performer to civil rights activist. Watch it instead of the rotten biopic Nina, released a year later to a critical panning and the disapproval of Simone’s family.
Watch it: Netflix

Chicago (2002)

You’ll either love this or would rather stick pencils in your eyes and ears, but this Oscar-winning adaptation of the musical is set in the same Chicago as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, one of vaudeville clubs and troubled lives, albeit presented very differently.
Watch it: YouTube

ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads (2019)

According to legend, bluesman Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil at a crossroads in rural Mississippi to achieve great success. He did indeed find fame – but died at 27, making him the first member of the ‘27 Club’. The story can’t be real – can it?
Watch it: Netflix

Selma (2014)

It’s sobering to see how little ground had been given to the Civil Rights movement in the 38 years between the setting of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches depicted in this acclaimed drama.
Watch it: Netflix