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For Danielle Brooks, the path to play Mahalia Jackson in Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia traces back to her childhood. Growing up as the daughter of a deacon and a minister in South Carolina, the actress was often surrounded by gospel and the names of legends whose impact on the form continues to reverberate.
“I was introduced to her by a poster…a chocolate, dark-skinned woman with a full round face that said gospel singer Mahalia Jackson,” Brooks tells THR Presents, powered by Vision Media. “As time went on, I got to know her music for myself.”
Following her breakout role in Orange Is the New Black, Brooks combined her passion for acting and singing in The Color Purple on Broadway alongside Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Hudson, both of whom played another gospel icon, Aretha Franklin, in, respectively, Legend: Aretha and Respect, this past year.
“Sometimes people really are the mouthpiece for what God has next to you,” Brooks says, recalling being told by Hudson, as well as her successor in the Broadway show, Jennifer Holliday, that she should play the Queen of Gospel one day.
Brooks spent years researching everything there was to know about the New Orleans singer, from her music career to her involvement in the civil rights movement, including her friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. While working with Mahalia director Kenny Leon on Much Ado About Nothing, which was part of the Public Theater’s summer Shakespeare in the Park season, Brooks says the two shared hopes of one day of bringing Jackson’s story to life.
“We were in rehearsal and he’s like, ‘What do you want to do next?’ and I was like, ‘I want to play Mahalia Jackson.’ And he was like, ‘I want to direct Mahalia Jackson.’ We just shared our dreams and what we wanted to do next in our future,” Brooks says, adding that as things came to fruition, she was proud to be a part of a project she’d hoped for “as a little girl.”
For executive producer Linda Berman, an essential aspect of any biopic is a balance between authenticity and creativity. With Mahalia, she shares pride in knowing the cast and crew stayed true to Jackson’s story while finding ways to personalize their contributions in making the movie.
“When Lifetime came to us…we had to try and decide what’s the best story to tell,” recalls Berman. “Is it from birth to death? Is it her relationships? Is it just her singing success? We came to this idea that Mahalia was a woman who got her guidance from God. She listened to him…and she made a vow to him to only sing gospel music and not to sing secular music. And she lived by that and her faith really drove her in everything she did. So that was the anchor of the story.”
Berman adds that with Brooks on the project, offering “her ideas and her creative instincts to it,” the film became “more than just a document of a person’s life…. It kind of takes on its own life. It was so great to have a woman who has talked about and thought about Mahalia for 10 years, bringing her instincts to it.”
Brooks expresses gratitude for being able to do just that, and to help shepherd the project, which is vying for Outstanding Television Movie in the Emmy race, beyond her impassioned performance in the title role.
“It has been such a great addition to my life to have stepped into this part and to have played her,” says Brooks. “To now have this Emmy nomination, as a co-executive producer and someone who starred in the film, it feels like a win-win all around.”
This edition of THR Presents was sponsored by Lifetime.
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