lifetime’s new mahalia has artists from georgia on every corner. part-time atlantan kenny leon produces, directs and has a small starting role as a music teacher. Augusta-born Danielle Brooks (Orange Is The New Black) stars as the lead, and Atlanta-based actor Rob Demery stars as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Robin Roberts (Good Morning, America), the executive producer of the above-titled film, did sports radio and television in 1980s Atlanta.
mahalia jackson’s career spanned more than 40 years and she significantly helped carry the gospel beyond the walls of the church. Her story hasn’t been dramatized before, and as well-received as the biopic is, it’s something of a little trip.
Mahalia begins in the 1920s, when a very young Mahalia sings the blues in her Louisiana home, attracting passersby who stop to listen and look in the windows. Her unamused aunt tells the girl she cannot be baptized until she sings more appropriate music.
years later, jackson makes a living cleaning houses in chicago and singing in a church. history repeats itself. the pastor disapproves of his style and kicks her out. However, Jackson bounces back and sells over 2 million copies of his song “Move A Little Higher”. Throughout her career, Jackson toured regularly, performed gospel at venues like Carnegie Hall, became the first gospel singer to be signed to Columbia Records, and became a noted civil rights activist. She stood near MLK during her 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
Mahalia is not without ambition or talent, but her script is doing no one a favor. He gallops through the decades, sometimes wearing a handful of them, providing a cursory glimpse into Jackson’s fascinating life. mahalia could easily have been, and should have been, a longer movie or miniseries. as is, it clocks in at 106 minutes (available to stream or watch for life on demand).
jackson (1911-1972) dealt with a lot in her 60s: multiple husbands, tragedy, rejection by the record company, executives who didn’t understand her music, her rise in the civil rights movement, and the aftermath of the murder of mlk. she also had health problems that the film never delves into. An awkward early sequence finds Mahalia nervously preparing for an interview, meets a boy on the street and brings him home with her, to live. The film neglects her relationship with such iconic artists as Aretha Franklin and the friendship she shared with Coretta Scott King.
Leon directs efficiently. He knows how to tell a story and get the work he needs from his actors. What he can’t do, alas, is breathe life into a story that insists on a breakneck pace.
he and brooks worked together in new york last spring/summer on a remarkable all-black staging of much ado about nothing for shakespeare public theater in the park (later aired on pbs’s great performances series ). It’s clear that she and Leon have a comfort level. Brooks brings her usual warmth and charisma to the title role. A Tony nominee for the 2015 revival of The Color Purple, she can sing and does most of her own singing. Those numbers bring Mahalia to life from time to time, but the film gives her central character very little edge. Working for her can be demanding, and Mahalia points out so much of what she accomplished, the film never reveals her many layers or the struggles she faced.
demery, seen in leon’s broadway version of a tony award-nominated soldier’s play, does a proper mlk. Some of the best scenes in the film take place between mlk and mahalia but, like almost everything here, they are too short. the civil rights movement had a huge impact on jackson’s life, and the movie would have benefited from showing more of that.
Other supporting characters making impressions include Joaquina Kalukango (a Tony nominee for Broadway’s recent Slave play) as Mahalia’s long-time pianist and Jason Dirden (TV’s Greenleaf, Leon is a revival of raisin in the sun on broadway in 2014) as a falling reverend for mahalia.
mahalia looks like the current hulu movie usa vs. billie holiday, with academy award nominee andra day in the title role. both are built around talented hardworking actors surrounded by capable casts but stuck on uncertain scripts. mahalia feels like an introduction to the great gospel that demands deeper and more detailed treatment.