When watching Qwest Love’s doc Summer of Soul at the Toronto Film Festival, little did I realize that Mahalia Jackson would permeate my screening experience for month to come. It has been a welcomed reminder of growing up in in the COGIC church community and my listening to Great Aunt speak about her days in Chicago as a beautician, vocalist and becoming friends with the late great Mahalia Jackson. To this day , she was considered a dear friend of our family. So. when Robin Roberts announced her partnering with Grammy winner/Tony nominee Danielle Brooks and Kenny Leon to bring Jackson’s life story to screen, the premiere date couldn’t get here quick enough.
Born in New Orleans, Mahalia Jackson began singing at an early age and went on to become one of the most revered gospel figures in U.S. history. “Move on Up a Little Higher” sold millions of copies, skyrocketing her to international fame, while creating opportunities to perform at Carnegie Hall and President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. An active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, Jackson sang at the March on Washington alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When I tell you Danielle Brooks embodies every fiber, note and nuance of the late gospel legend, I do not exaggerate. Brooks excels during elements revolved around her many husbands, complicated relationship with pianist/friend Mildred Falls (Joaquina Kalukango), her health issues and the struggles all artists endured during that time with record labels, money, negotiations and straddling that line of trying to represent the Black community and receiving hate from all sides simultaneously.
Brooks’ performance is enhanced by those of her co-stars Jason Dirden (Russell) and Joaquina Kalukango (Mildred). Their performances are just fantabulous. There are several standout scenes, but one that resonates is an altercation between Mildred and Mahalia over money only to witness them make up decades later. The individual and collective pain exuded will bring tears to your eyes. The ladies are truly providing audiences with stellar work. But, by far my favorite moment occurs after a heart-to-heart with Dr. King (Rob Demery) where Brooks delivers a haunting version of “Precious Lord” that haunts my spirit even as I write.
Just like Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Ruth Brown, Shirley Caesar and so many of our great ladies of blues and gospel, they often endured bias from skin color to gender and everything in between. Yet, is is their strength and endurance that has paved the way for artists like Beyoncé, CeCe Winans, Jazmyne Sullivan, Yolanda Adams and so many more.
Of all the Lifetime movies I have screened over the years, this is the best. The attention to detail from hair, makeup, costume and production design all the way down to the screenplay by Todd Kriedler and Bettina Gilois are exceptional.
Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia is one of those rare films that leaves you with an overwhelming desire to run to a church service with your Sunday best and have a whole new appreciation for the soloist when her/she steps up to the mic.