Variety Streaming Room
“Robin Roberts Presents Mahalia Jackson” tells the story of the New Orleans-born gospel singer who went on to become one of the most admired historical figures of the civil rights movement. In…
“Robin Roberts Presents Mahalia Jackson” tells the story of the New Orleans-born gospel singer who went on to become one of the most admired historical figures of the civil rights movement.
In the Variety Streaming Room presented by Lifetime, senior artisans editor Jazz Tangcay had a conversation with director Kenny Leon and actor Danielle Brooks, who both served as co-executive producers on the film, about how faith brought them to the project as well as the influence of the late gospel singer.
During his time at home in Atlanta amid the COVID-19 lockdown, Leon said he woke up every day listening to the music of Mahalia Jackson because it reminded him of growing up in Florida with his mother who was a Gospel singer.
“To give myself comfort during the trying time last year, the unknown time, the uncertain time, I just listened to Mahalia every day,” Leon said. “I would say seven weeks after that — me listening to Mahalia Jackson for two hours, praying for an hour, meditating for an hour, riding my Peloton bike, reading, just getting into something routine — I got a call from Robin Roberts and Tonya Lopez to direct the Mahalia Jackson film. And they had no idea at the time that I was waking up listening to her every single day for strength and courage.”
As a result of this coincidence, Leon said a lot of this film feels like destiny. When the director asked Brooks if she would like to play Mahalia Jackson, she said she would pray on it and get back to him.
“After I prayed on it, which I did do, I prayed on it, I knew this had to be the right fit,” Brooks said. “Because some things are just ordained. Some things God, like you said, the manifestation of it. We did manifest this. And sometimes you got to really listen to what God is telling you to do. And so I think this was a sign for me to be in this production with Kenny Leon.”
While filming the Lifetime project during the pandemic, Brooks said that she had to balance taking care of my one-year-old daughter while working 15 to 16 hour-long days. The actor said that Jackson was a nurturer and a giver in a similar fashion despite never having children.
“[She was] a giver, a person that knew that she needed to be of service to the world,” Brooks said. “I think a part of that was also wanting to be a mother, and she took a lot of people in. I think one, because she wanted to use her resources and bring people up. But at the same time, she wasn’t able to be a mom.”
Brooks said the biggest thing she learned about the revered gospel figure was her entrepreneurial properties. From designing her own line of Black-owned chicken restaurants to having her own hair salon, Jackson was a shrewd businesswoman.
“She didn’t play with her money,” Brooks said. “I knew her as the Gospel singer. I did not know that she was having multiple streams of income as a Black woman in the thirties and forties and fifties. I thought that was pretty phenomenal to discover about her.”
Watch the video above.