She closed the show at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and continues to bring down the house whenever Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day is screened. The performing arts center in Louis Armstrong Park is named in her honor. That was appropriate, because even though she was a gospel singer, there was still a lot of NOLA soul in her voice. The legendary performer gets the bio-film treatment with the awkwardly titled Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia (seriously, her name comes before Jackson’s), directed by Kenny Leon, which premieres this Saturday on Lifetime.
As a young child, Jackson’s strict aunt scares her off from joyously singing along with the likes of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey—and she would hew to the gospel straight-and-narrow for the rest of her life (more or less). It took fame a while to catch up with Jackson, because she did not seek it like secular performers. She also had a questionable first husband, but when Studs Terkel played her debut on Apollo, the indie specialty label, things started happening. During most of that time, Mildred Falls was right there with her, dutifully accompanying Jackson on piano.
Rather oddly, RRP: Mahalia closes with the disclosure the Jackson estate did not cooperate with the film’s production. It is hard to see what they might object to. The screenplay, co-written by the late Bettina Gilois and Todd Kreidler is entirely respectful. Sure, Jackson is sometimes depicted making mistakes and getting a little lost, but humanity is flawed by its nature, right?
Regardless, Danielle Brooks does quite well in the iconic lead role. The Tony-nominee for The Color Purple has a big voice and bears a strong likeness to Jackson. She also nicely projects her faith and dignity. Rob Demery is similarly credible playing (and humanizing) another iconic figure, Jackson’s friend and spiritual advisor, Dr. Martin Luther King. In fact, they have two scenes together directly addressing the struggles of faith that are smarter and more honest than just about any depiction of religion in film you could think of.
Like her character, Olivia Washington is often shunted over to the corner portraying Falls, but at least her presence gives viewers an appreciation for her playing (someone like Chess Records really should have signed her as an instrumental soloist). However, Jim Thorburn adds some sly energy as Terkel.