• December 10, 2023

‘Ma Rainey’ Hairstylist Talks Horsehair Wigs, Historic Oscar Nomination : NPR

NPR’s Michel Martin speaks to Jamika Wilson, who is currently nominated for an Oscar in the hairstyling and makeup category for her work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom received five Academy Award nominations last month, including Best Actress for Viola Davis, who plays pioneering blues singer Ma Rainey while she and her band went through a 1920 Chicago recording session.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (as character) All right, guys. You saw the rest. Now I’ll show you the best. Ma Rainey will show you what her black ass is like.

MAXAYN LEWIS: (As Ma Rainey sings) Right down in Alabamy I have a friend they call Sammy who is crazy about the latest dances, black butted stomps and the new way they dance.

MARTIN: Also nominated are Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, who worked on the hairstyling for the film. You made history as the first two black women to ever be nominated for an Oscar in the hairstyle and makeup category. And we are now accompanied by one of the nominees, Jamika Wilson. Jamika, welcome. Congratulations.

JAMIKA WILSON: Thank you. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: So did you have time to let it in? Are you still working hard

WILSON: (Laughter) I’m still working very hard. It is – really not – it has sunk in with me. But doing all the other things while the awards ceremony is taking place has been a difficult challenge for me.

MARTIN: I can imagine you working with Viola Davis as your personal hairdresser in the film. And you keep working with her. And now it’s awards season when, while everything is still on Zoom, people still want to look their best. Were there any – I don’t know. I suspect you’ve worked with Viola Davis before. You knew her, so you had this relationship. But tell us some of the challenges of doing hair for the movie.

WILSON: First of all, I’m used to doing modern hair styling. Since this was a 1920s movie, it was a challenge for me because when it first gave me the opportunity, I had no idea who Ma Rainey was. So I had to do my research and found that it was a historical film. And this was my first experience with a historical film.

So my challenge was to make sure I could do the hairstyling from the 1920s. And then in the process I found out that Mia would come with me as the head of department, and she had already designed the wig. That made it a little easier for me. But the challenge for me was to work with that era.

MARTIN: I understand that the wigs were actually authentic for the era. How were they made of horsehair?

WILSON: They were made of horsehair, yes.

MARTIN: Wow, that’s wild.

WILSON: The wigs were made of horsehair. It’s very wild and – what I discovered while working with the horsehair wig – it’s almost like a synthetic wig today, you know? Many people think that it is really hot and heavy. The wig was actually very light, you know? Mia said that she – what she did was ventilate the wig. And she did it strand by strand. She didn’t get stranded twice. I think that helped me a lot. But, surprisingly, it was really a light wig.

MARTIN: Well, that’s good to know because she’s been in the film for a while. Let me ask you about Hollywood’s track record when it comes to hair in general. I mean, the industry hasn’t done well with black hair in the past, or let’s just say, hair that isn’t sleek and sleek. And you’ve heard stories from celebrities like Gabrielle Union and Halle Berry about their experiences with hairdressers who weren’t trained to treat or work with their hair type. Is that part of the reason you got into the business? Because this service was not offered? Tell us about your story.

WILSON: Yes, I think so. I think you would say it My experience – you know, I’ve been working with Viola since 2008. And yes, she wanted someone there who could style and handle her hair. And that’s always a challenge when we’re on set. African Americans know both hair types, you know? We just don’t do a single hair texture. We can do anything. And now, when actors talk and say they want someone who can handle their hair, they have to bring an African American hairdresser because there aren’t very many Caucasian hairdressers out there who are comfortable doing African American hair.

MARTIN: Is there – obviously, you know, it is – you know, everyone says it’s just great to be nominated. It is an honor to be nominated. But is there anything you hope will come out of this nomination for history?

WILSON: Well, let me just say, you know, the recognition of my – you know, my art and my talent through the academy, it is – for me it is really bigger than me. It’s like the dream of every stylist sitting behind a chair wanting to work in a movie or film. It’s for the little kid telling their parents they want to be a hairdresser and the answer is it’s not a career, you know?

For me, this nomination is a confirmation that hairstyling is an art form. And it’s a craft and it’s a skill you know And I just think it shows any black woman or man that we can get that nomination, and more importantly, our talent and ability is equal and extraordinary, you know? It’s just amazing for me because hair is my passion. And to be nominated and possibly to win an award is just mind blowing.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations. It is so great to talk to you. Jamika Wilson is nominated for an Oscar in the hair and makeup category for her work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is now streamed on Netflix. Jamika Wilson, thank you very much for the interview and good luck on Oscar night.

WILSON: Thank you very much.


LEWIS: (singing as Ma Rainey) I want to see the dance they call the black bum. I want to learn this dance, want to see the dance you call your big black bum that puts you in a trance. All the guys in the neighborhood – they say your black bum is really good. Come and show me your black bum. I want to learn this dance.

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