When this moving biopic opens, Mahalia Jackson — not yet a world-renowned gospel artist and champion of civil rights — is a little Louisiana girl singing along to the Victrola as neighbors gather outside to listen.
Later, Mahalia (Danielle Brooks) is a force as she strives to make it in a white-dominated industry. She refuses lucrative offers to sing the blues, a box she is expected to fit in as a Black vocalist. Brooks (Orange Is the New Black) nails Mahalia’s stubbornness, which can be self-sabotaging, but often her strong convictions are what make her an engaging protagonist.
Pursuing gospel seems dubious until 1947, when “Move on Up a Little Higher” becomes a hit, which is exciting to watch. (Brooks, above, performs her own vocals with real skill and passion.)
She’s honored with an invitation to sing at Carnegie Hall…but feels unworthy. Thankfully, Mahalia’s longtime piano player, Mildred (a sympathetic Joaquina Kalukango), helps her overcome her nerves to give a showstopping performance you won’t soon forget.
That honest relationship and others — with adopted son John (Benjamin Charles Watson) and with Martin Luther King Jr. (Rob Demery), who invites her to the March on Washington — ground the film. As the years pass and folks still congregate to hear her sing, we realize Mahalia’s legacy is not just her voice but her incredible ability to bring people together.
Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia, Premiere, Saturday, April 3, 8/7c, Lifetime