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'Ma Rainey' Hairstylist Talks Horsehair Wigs, Historic Oscar Nomination

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The film "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" received five Oscar nominations last month, including best actress for Viola Davis, who plays the pioneering blues singer Ma Rainey as she and her band go through a recording session in 1920 Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As character) All right, boys. You done seen the rest. Now I'm going to show you the best. Ma Rainey's going to show you how her Black bottom.

MAXAYN LEWIS: (As Ma Rainey, singing) Way down south in Alabamy, I got a friend they call dancing Sammy who's crazy about all the latest dancing, black bottom stomps and the new way they prancing.

MARTIN: Also nominated, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, who worked on the hairstyling for the film. They made history as the first two Black women ever nominated for an Academy Award in the hairstyle and makeup category. And we are joined now by one of the nominees, Jamika Wilson. Jamika, welcome. Congratulations.

JAMIKA WILSON: Thank you. Thank you so much.

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

WILSON: (Laughter) I am still really working hard. It's - really hasn't - it has sunk in with me. But just doing all the other things with the awards seasoning happening, it's been a tough challenge for me.

MARTIN: I can imagine because on the movie, you work with Viola Davis as her personal hairstylist. And you continue to work with her. And now it's awards season when, even though everything's still on Zoom, people still want to look their best. Were there some - I don't know. I'm guessing having worked with Viola Davis before, it was - you knew her, so you had that relationship. But tell us some of the challenges of doing hair for the film.

WILSON: First of all, I'm used to doing modern hairstyling. So being that this was a 1920s film, it was a challenge for me because, you know, when she first offered the opportunity to me, I had no idea of who Ma Rainey was. So I had to do my research and discovered that it was a period film. And this was my first experience with a period film.

So my challenge was, you know, making sure that I was able to do the 1920s-era hairstyling. And then I discovered during the process that Mia was going to be coming along as the department head, and she had already designed the wig. So that made it a little bit more easier for me. But the challenge really for me was, you know, working with that era.

MARTIN: I understand that the wigs were actually authentic to the era. Like, they were made of horsehair?

WILSON: They were made of horsehair, yeah.

MARTIN: Wow, that's wild.

WILSON: The wigs were made of horsehair. It's very wild and - which I discovered with working with the horsehair wig that they are - it's almost like a synthetic wig today, you know? A lot of people think that it's really hot and heavy. The wig was actually very light, you know? Mia said that she - what she did was she ventilated the wig. And she did it strand by strand. She did not double strand. So I think that helped out a lot. But it was really a lightweight wig, surprisingly.

MARTIN: Oh, well, that's good to know 'cause she does have it on for quite some time in the film. So let me ask you about Hollywood's track record when it comes to hair in general. I mean, the industry has a history of not working well with Black hair or let's just say hair that is other than straight and sleek. And you've heard stories from celebrities like Gabrielle Union and Halle Berry about their experiences with hairstylists who weren't trained to treat or work with their type of hair. So is that part of the reason you got into the business? Because that service wasn't being offered? Tell us a little bit about your story.

WILSON: Yeah, I guess so. I guess you would say so. My experience - you know, I was working with Viola since 2008. And, yeah, she wanted someone there who could style her hair and handle it. And that is always a challenge when we're on set. African Americans are familiar with both types of hair, you know? We just don't do one texture of hair. We can do it all. And by actors now speaking up and saying that they want someone who can handle their hair, they have to bring an African American hairstylist because there's not very many Caucasian hairstylists that feel comfortable doing African American hair.

MARTIN: Is there - obviously, you know, it's - you know, they all say it's just great to be nominated. It's an honor just to be nominated. But is there something that you hope will come from this history-making nomination?

WILSON: Well, let me just say, you know, the recognition of my - you know, my art and talent by the Academy, it's - for me, it's really bigger than me. It's, like, every stylist's dream that's - you know, that sits behind a chair and want to work in motion picture or film. It's for the young child who tell their parent that they want to be a hairstylist, and the response is that is not a career, you know?

This nomination to me is validation that hairstyling is an art form. And it is a craft, and it is a skill, you know? And I just think it shows every Black woman or man doing hair that we can achieve this nomination and more importantly, that our talent and skill is equal and exceptional, you know? This is just really mind-blowing to me 'cause hair is my passion. And to be nominated and to possibly win an award is just blows my mind.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations. So great to talk with you. Jamika Wilson is nominated for an Oscar in the hair and makeup category for her work in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which is streaming now on Netflix. Jamika Wilson, thank you so much for speaking with us, and good luck on Oscar night.

WILSON: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM")

LEWIS: (As Ma Rainey, singing) I want to see the dance they call the Black bottom. I want to learn that dance, want to see the dance you call your big Black bottom that'll put you in a trance. All the boys in the neighborhood - they say your Black bottom is really good. Come on and show me your Black bottom. I want to learn that dance. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.