Executive produced by Robin Roberts for Lifetime, “Mahalia” tells the story of the gospel icon, Mahalia Jackson. Born in New Orleans, Mahalia Jackson began singing at an early age. In her teenage years, she moved to Chicago and went on to become one of the most celebrated gospel figures in history. Her music was often melded with the Civil Rights movement.
Her recording of the song “Move on Up a Little Higher” sold millions of copies. The song skyrocketed her career and she achieved international fame. Mahalia often performed to diverse crowds including a racially integrated audience at Carnegie Hall and at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. Mahalia was an active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. She sang at numerous rallies including the March on Washington in 1963 alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in hopes that her music would encourage and inspire racial equality. Mahalia famously said out loud to Martin Luther King, Jr., “tell them about the dream, Martin” and he begins his historic speech.
The film stars Danielle Brooks as Mahalia Jackson. Brooks shines as Mahalia, beautifully capturing the gospel legend’s spirit and passion for gospel music. She masterfully portrays Mahalia’s complexities as she deals with fame, wealth, and celebrity. Initially, Mahalia and her renditions of gospel music were rebuked by those who felt it was too “blues-y”. She struggled to fit into church choirs that focused on respectability instead of the feeling invoked by music. Brooks plays Mahalia with strength and dignity, often highlighting her unwillingness to compromise who she was and how she sang gospel music. In addition to staring in the film, she is also one of the co-executive producers. She sings three songs in the film as well. While performing in the Broadway production of the Color Purple, Brooks recalls a conversation she had with Chicago singer and actress, Jennifer Hudson.
“When I was on that show, I had the privilege of working with Jennifer Hudson, and I remember her coming to my dressing room, which she did every day before she got on stage, and we would chat and she would say, “You should play Mahalia Jackson.” And I said, “Okay.” And I didn’t think too hard about it. But then when Jennifer Holliday came and stepped into her same shoe, she said the same thing. And I was like, what? Maybe this is a sign. Maybe God is telling me maybe I should really think about this character or this person, to play this person, Mahalia Jackson, who I had known previously.”
Brooks former Julliard roommate, Joaquina Kalukango plays Mildred, Mahalia Jackson’s long-time pianist. Mildred is extremely talented and even more opinionated. The two would play together at the height of Mahalia’s success. Former Greenleaf actor, Jason Dirden plays Russell Roberts, the dashing, music-loving Reverend who falls in love with Mahalia. The Chicago Defender had a chance to speak with Jason about the love story between Mahalia and Roberts.
Rounding out the cast are Olivia Washington as Estelle, the piano teacher who becomes her dearest friend, and Rob Demery who stars as civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr.
Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia premieres on Saturday, April 3 on Lifetime.
Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSandersOfficial.