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‘Mahalia’ Star Danielle Brooks On Bringing The Life And Struggles Of Mahalia Jackson To Light: “She Was Our Royalty; She Was The Queen Of Gospel”

·15-min read

Growing up as the daughter of a deacon and a minister, church and gospel music has had a major influence on Danielle Brooks. After her breakout role in Orange is the New Black, Brooks combined her passions for acting and singing in The Color Purple on Broadway. But Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia takes her back to her roots to play the legendary gospel singer and activist Mahalia Jackson. As both the star and co-executive producer, Brooks made it her goal to tell the story of everything Mahalia overcame in her life to become the legend that had inspired Brooks as a child.

DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia? Was this a role you were searching for?

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DANIELLE BROOKS: Yeah, pretty much. This is something that I had been interested in since 2016, when I entered into The Color Purple, and two of my castmates had mentioned that they felt that my voice sounded like Mahalia Jackson. And I was like, “Wait, what?” And I was pretty stoked about that because they opened a can of worms that I didn’t know that I needed to have a taste of. At the time I was super inspired by Chadwick Boseman as he played Jackie Robinson and James Brown. And he was from South Carolina as well. And so, I think to find someone that I had related to and looked like, and really could embody Mahalia Jackson, it just felt right. It felt like someone just came down from heaven and gave me the sign that I was supposed to play her. And that’s what I felt through those two people who happened to be Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Holliday, who had mentioned her name associated with my voice. From there I was just trying to figure out how do I get something made?

I told my managers and agent at the time, “I’m really interested in playing Mahalia Jackson, how does this work?” So, the universe does this thing. And luckily, a few years later, I get the call from Kenny Leon, after working with him in Much Ado About Nothing in the park, and playing his leading lady over there. He called me and asked me to step into the shoes of Mahalia Jackson for Lifetime. And it didn’t take much for me to say yes. He always jokes that it took a prayer. Cause I was like, “Let me pray on it,” which is a very Mahalia Jackson thing to say. And so, I did and it just felt right. It felt like the right move for me to align myself with people who are going to be passionate about the project.

DEADLINE: And before starting the movie, how familiar were you with Mahalia’s life beyond just the music?

BROOKS: I wasn’t. I wasn’t until 2016. I’ve been doing research on her since then, because I was so curious. I knew that generally we have things in common, but what makes up Mahalia Jackson? What was her life? Who is she? I got really curious about knowing the ins and outs of her. One of the first things I learned was that she was married and then divorced. And for a Christian woman at that time, that was a big deal. And I was super curious on how someone had kept such a good reputation and for us to not know all of her hardships. And so that’s when the research began for me with Mahalia in 2016.

I did learn about her in church when I was a little girl. But in church we would go to Bible study and Sunday school and we would have these little classrooms and we’d have pictures of monumental people in the African American community, like Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr, and Mahalia Jackson was one of them. And you know, these posters give you the generic gospel singer, queen of gospel music, but I saw her face with those round cheeks and dark skin. I was like, “Man, this reminds me of myself.” And so, I was introduced to her, generally speaking, at church. And then later in 2016, I really took a deep dive.

DEADLINE: Growing up in the church, how experienced were you with singing gospel music?

BROOKS: My first solo at church was 6 years old. I sang, “I Won’t Complain.” What does a 6-year-old know about complaining? I didn’t know about hardships, but I was a very shy singer actually. I was asked to do some solos in church, but the few clips that my parents have shown me of me singing a solo in church was very shy behavior. But I always credit the foundation of my passion for being an artist to the church because, to me, there was so many similarities. I mean from the audience, to having the preacher, which is similar to having the lead in your show or movie or theater show. And having the ushers and the general experience that you get being there. Having the ensemble, which is like a choir, and the programs, which are like playbills, like there were so many similarities.

So, the transition just made so much sense for me. But church was the foundation for me to gain my confidence as a singer. To learn how to speak in public, when you’re having to stand up in front of everyone and say the Scripture. They had Youth Sunday where every third Sunday the youth would take over the service. And we would do the Scripture and we would sing in the choir and we would pray. That really was the foundation for me.

Gospel music truly is the heartbeat of me. You know, I listen to gospel 24/7. I love gospel music. I can pretty much sing, or name any gospel song or know most hymns. And so, it’s the fabric of who I am the same way that it was for Mahalia Jackson. It means a lot to me to get to have sung all of her songs and to embody her through this kind of music.

DEADLINE: And your singing in the movie was absolutely incredible. What was the hardest part of capturing her unique voice?

BROOKS: I never quit until I felt in my spirit that I had gotten it. I sang all of the music live, but we pre-recorded and went over the music a week early in Atlanta. And I’m glad we did that because it gave me the time to find her voice. I knew it was tricky. We had two different spaces, like the studio space that’s really intimate and then we had this grand open space that kind of felt like being in a smaller church. It felt that way, but it was more open and I kept bouncing back and forth from it, trying to find her voice and figure out where it lives in my body.

And the open space really helped to find songs like “How I Got Over.” These things that she sang marching with Martin Luther King Jr., that she sang at all of these major events — I’m thinking of the event in 1963, the march on Washington, when she told Martin, “Tell them about the dream.” And then there were moments where you sing things like “Amazing Grace” or “Precious Lord,” where, to me, it made more sense to be in a more intimate space. You need the intimacy for that to really feel the spirit and the soul of a person and hear every breath being breathed.

But when it came to singing her songs, I had to really break out of the perfectionism that I have of wanting every word to be articulated so clearly. Like there’s moments where she sings, “Come on, chirren. Let’s sing.” And she sings “chirren,” not children, like those little details of what makes Mahalia, Mahalia. And then also, she never sang anything the same. Which worked in my favor because I don’t ever sing anything the same way for the most part either. Like she’s the type of person that wouldn’t do it, which is why Mildred falls was such a crucial part of her musical journey. But even with the notes to start a song, she would just choose whatever note she was feeling and I can relate to that. So, that was a lot of fun because she truly was letting the spirit move her.

For me, since I was a little girl, I’ve always struggled with being OK with my own singing voice and not being so judgmental to the voice that I have been given. But it’s so much easier for me to hide and show the vocal range that I do have through a character. So, it was easier for me to do that when I played Sophia in The Color Purple on Broadway. It was much easier for me to use all of the gifts that I have vocally through Mahalia Jackson versus Danielle Brooks. So, it’s really been a great freedom for me to get to sing and just release all of that and get to show more parts of who I am with the world.

DEADLINE: You mentioned Mildred Falls. One of the things that I really appreciated about the movie was how all of those people that were connected to Mahalia got included, more so than just like a name and a face. What was the reasoning behind including those things, like Mildred’s alcoholism and the arthritis?

BROOKS: I think that was really important to me coming on as a co-executive producer of this project. Cause normally, when we see a movie about Martin Luther King Jr and they decide to include Mahalia Jackson, you only get a snippet of their relationship and I think it’s such a disservice. So, for me, it was important to really highlight these other people that were in her life because I don’t think Mildred Falls will ever get her own story told, you know what I mean? But she has such an influential presence in Mahalia Jackson’s life and in her career. Even someone like Studs Terkel because people don’t really know who he is, but he had such a huge presence during the ’40s and ’50s.

It’s also kind of a moment to like shine light. Again, I just applaud Lifetime and Robin Roberts for staying fast at telling the story so that Mahalia’s light doesn’t get dimmed. That we remember that she was our royalty; she was the Queen of Gospel. She sang in front of presidents and she had a close relationship with JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. All of these leaders, and she sang for kings and queens in different countries and at Carnegie hall. This black woman in the ’30s and ’40s and beyond was doing The Ed Sullivan Show. These are major milestones and bricks that she laid for the next generation of Black female artists. I don’t want that to ever be forgotten because I feel like we need to continue to leave space for women like Odetta or Ruth Brown, or Mildred Falls. I even think about how it’s crazy that Ella Fitzgerald has yet to have her story told. So, I just really hope that we continue to elevate these black vocalists that we have had in our homes for generations and generations.

DEADLINE: Another thing that I think was very important for you to bring in was her hysterectomy and her very justified distrust of the medical system into the movie.

BROOKS: Yeah, thank you for saying that. And you said it very right, It’s very justified. That was very important to me and being that I came on as co-executive producer and the people that I was working with were so gracious to not only allow my voice into the room, but to actively manifest those ideas. So, I had gotten the script and we had made a few adjustments and changes to different scenes here and there. And I was talking to Todd Kreidler, who came on as our writer, and Kenny [Leon] and I said the thing, because I was reading like crazy. I was reading books., reading the back of records, looking at documentaries. You know, the whole thing we do as actors. So, I’m doing the whole rundown and thinking, how can we make this, the coolest movie to ever land on Lifetime? The coolest biopic to ever land or Lifetime. And to do that, I think you have to find the core, and the not so good parts, and the messy, and the confusing, and all of what makes us humans. You’ve got to find that part. And one of the things that I had discovered was she had a hysterectomy and she had a huge desire to be a mother.

And here I am, I just had a daughter. And she’s one as I go on this journey as Mahalia. And I took her with me to Canada, and she’s 1 years old. And I’m thinking about all of these women, especially black women and their stories of trying to come into motherhood. And it is so complex. I mean, it’s complex enough being a woman and trying to become a mother, but being a black woman and trying to become a mother and the complexities of navigating it in a way where you feel heard and seen and taken care of, can be very challenging. And I discovered that on my own journey, because a lot of people have their own agendas for your body. And I personally feel like that’s what happened in that moment, was a decision was made on her behalf to have this hysterectomy.

And maybe she had to have it. But when you are coming out of the world where you have the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment that happened where they’re killing all of these black people through the medical science experiment, I tried to truly imagine when she might’ve felt like to not have that much agency over her body. To try and trust these doctors, when you are seeing cases like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. And then struggling with trying to let go of the idea that you can’t have a kid, that you can’t have a baby.

And so, it was truly important to me, going through the maternity journey myself and getting all of these stories from other black women. I actually sent Todd [Kreidler] a bit of dialogue, which ended up becoming that monologue that I say to Russell in the hospital. And those were clips that I had heard from my sisters who wanted children and weren’t able to have them and what they felt going through that process. And that was a real moment to honor black motherhood and to not shy away from talking about it. I really give kudos to Todd and Kenny [Leon] for doing it. For doing what Martin Luther King did with Mahalia was when she said, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” He did that, and it truly changed the culture. One of the biggest speeches that we reference today, and part of that is because of her. And so, I’m not trying to say I’m Mahalia Jackson, you know, but I’m just saying if it can push us forward in the conversations that we have and the kind of material that we watch, then my job has been done and I can walk away proud of that.

DEADLINE: You were saying it was important to you as a child to see yourself in that poster of Mahalia Jackson. So how does it feel to bring that representation to a new generation, in image, personality, and voice, for young people who may not have even known who Mahalia Jackson was?

BROOKS: It’s so important. I am so excited to take on the responsibility of being the person that I wanted to see when I was a younger girl, and to go past all of the women who inspired me growing up. I think of the fact that they had limitations on their career and I know they were super talented and probably could have acted circles around so many people that actually got praised. But because of the makeup of who they were in the ’90s, specifically for me, they weren’t able to push but so far.

I’m so glad that we are now living in a time where we are having more opportunities and being who you are is more than enough, and there’s so many more people to align with that have the same vision that you do. Because there’s still a lot of people who live in this mentality of complacency and not pushing us forward as a culture in Hollywood. So, it excites me to be that for someone else, and that’s why I will continue to take roles like Mahalia Jackson. I’ll continue to take roles like Orange [is the New Black].

And now I’m doing Peacemaker for HBO Max, where I get to hear James Gunn say to me, “Today, Danielle, you are becoming an action hero.” It’s so exciting because I have very rarely seen someone like myself get to do that. I had a brief conversation with this young lady in the costume department on Peacemaker. She said to me, one day in my dress room, “Thank you, Danielle. It’s so refreshing to see someone that is plus size, my size, getting to show the world that we can kick ass too.” I almost was in tears because we all have our things that we go through and our hurts and we try to overcome them. I continue to try to embrace all that I am every day, and some days it’s not easy. So, when I get a little message like that, where someone says, “Because of you, I feel seen,” it makes it so worth it. It makes it so worth waking up and doing this and being away from my family and being in another country for nine months alone and working on myself. It makes it all worth it.

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