Mia Neal, who grew up styling the hair on her dolls in Gary, captured an Oscar Sunday for makeup and hairstyling along with Jamika Wilson and Sergio Lopez-Rivera for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Neal, 41, who headed the movie’s hair department and Wilson, broke an Oscar glass ceiling becoming the first Black women to win in that category created by the Academy in 1981.
In a stirring acceptance speech at the scaled-down, socially-distanced 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, Neal paid tribute to her late grandfather, James Holland, a Tuskegee Airman, track star, and Gary deputy mayor who died in 2002. Holland represented the U.S. in the first Pan Am games.
“He graduated from Northwestern University at a time that they did not allow Blacks to stay on campus, so he stayed at the YMCA. And after all of his accomplishments he went back to his hometown (Rock Island, Illinois) in hopes of becoming a teacher. But they did not hire Blacks in the school system.”
He would come to Gary and become a teacher at segregated Roosevelt High School.
“So I wanted to say thank you to our ancestors who put the work in, were denied, but never gave up. And I also stand here as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling with so much excitement for the future. Because I can picture Black trans women standing up here, and Asian sisters, and our Latina sisters, and Indigenous women. And I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking it will just be normal.”
The Netflix movie, from an August Wilson play, tells the story of Ma Rainey, played by Viola Davis, who arrives with her band for a recording session in Chicago in the 1920s in a period undercut by segregation and racial oppression. “Black Bottom” was one of her big hits.
Neal credited her mentor, Ann Roth, 89, who also won an Oscar for costume design for “Ma Rainey,” who suggested she create a horsehair wig for Davis in keeping with what Rainey likely wore because of its durability.
Neal told the media after her acceptance speech: “I always felt a strong connection to my ancestors. I never feel what I’m doing in the world is me, I always feel like I am covered and protected by them. We all get our gifts through our DNA, so I feel like I’m not only living out my dreams, but I’m living out my ancestors’ dreams.”
Dena Neal said her other daughter, Nia Neal of Merrillville, and some friends originally from Gary attended the ceremony. They went to a party afterward hosted by Viola Davis. Mia Neal wore a gown created by CD Greene, a New York designer she found out was from Gary, her mom said
Back in Gary, Dena Neal hosted a Zoom party for 14 friends and family members.
“The whole evening became surreal for me. One part of me said ‘she’s going to win it,’ but you can’t really say that. Everything started lining up,” she said.
After “Ma Rainey” was announced, Dena Neal said all she could hear was screaming. “It was truly one of the greatest feelings I ever had in my life. Going through my head was everything that Mia has gone through to get there.”
A veteran of New York stage productions, films and movies, Neal has been based in New York since graduating from the Juilliard School of Professional Internship for Wigs and Makeup.
She graduated from Horace Mann High School in 1997 and attended Merrillville Beauty College, then Columbia College in Chicago.
Neal’s success wasn’t forgotten by the Gary Community School Corp.
“We often boast about the many accomplishments of Gary Schools alumni. Once again, the eyes of the world are on Gary, Indiana, as we celebrate the Oscar win by Horace Mann High School graduate Mia Neal,” Paige McNulty, district manager, said in a release. “We are beyond proud of her for reaching this major accomplishment and for being another great example of the exceptional alumni that the Gary Community School Corp. continues to produce.”
After Columbia College, Neal decided she wanted to live on a campus and enrolled at Jackson State University, a historically Black college in Jackson, Mississippi.
While working at a MAC Cosmetics counter in Jackson, a co-worker encouraged her to apply for the nine-month wig program at Juilliard in New York.
“She never looked back after that,” said Dena Neal.
She’s working on a movie with Tyler Perry now that’s based in Atlanta.
Dena Neal wasn’t surprised to her daughter remembering her grandfather in her acceptance speech.
“I didn’t know she was going to do it. That was Mia, I was really happy about her acknowledging him.”
Carole Carlson is a freelance reporter at the Post-Tribune.