Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia (2021)
This awkwardly titled biopic starts off with the familiar sight of a young Black child being scolded for singing gospel in an ‘undignified’ manner, first by her aunt and then by a preacher and a tutor some years later. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Mahalia Jackson doesn’t cross over to the more lucrative jazz or blues. Instead, she continues to sing and preach the gospel, albeit in her own unique style. Though this biopic may lack similar courage with its by-the-numbers depiction of her life, the unabashed staging of the musical numbers brilliantly showcases both the impact of Jackson’s work and the formidable talents of Danielle Brooks in the lead role.
As a consequence of her devotion to gospel, and much to the consternation of her first husband, Jackson makes ends meet by cleaning houses, running a beauty salon and performing in tent revivals. This last option requires her to travel to America’s deep south, the last place her pianist Mildred wants to visit. Her performances are enthusiastically received, leading to Apollo Records signing her up for a two-hour recording session. Foolishly, the execs don't specify which two hours will be recorded.
‘Move On Up a Little Higher’ is a smash it, thanks in no small part to the promotion it receives from radio host Studs Terkel. Within a few short years Jackson is performing at Carnegie Hall, Jazz Festivals and fundraisers for the emerging civil right movement. Her involvement in this leads to a strong friendship with Martin Luther King, culminating in her performing at the March on Washington where she reminds him to “tell them about the dream”.
Surprisingly little time is dedicated to this event or King’s funeral, where Jackson also sang. Other significant episodes are either entirely bypassed or mentioned in passing, resulting in dramatic shifts in plot and character development. A jump forward in time lands Jackson in the studios of Apollo Records, while a second husband appears suddenly and vanishes almost as quickly. Consequently, Jackson’s change in behaviour in the biopic’s latter half is ill-prepared, leaving the deterioration of her relationships with those close to her perplexing.
Nevertheless, Robin Roberts presents: Mahalia remains an entertaining film that provides a good introduction to the gospel singer for the uninitiated. The following year, Jackson was portrayed by Ledisi in Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story.
as Mahalia Jackson
as Studs Terkel
Mahalia Jackson’s hysterectomy did not take place immediately after her triumph at Carnegie Hall in 1951. It occurred after she returned home from her 1952 European tour, which was cancelled due to her battle with sarcoidosis.