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Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia star Danielle Brooks and director Kenny Leon joined The Hollywood Reporter to discuss their Lifetime biopic of the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in a THR Presents Q&A powered by Vision Media.
Both Brooks and Leon spent much of their childhoods in the church and were familiar with Jackson’s music from an early age. “When the pandemic hit last year, out of my own uncertainty about what was happening in the world,I just put on Mahalia Jackson every day for like two hours,” Leon says. “It reminded me of my childhood, and it comforted me.”
It was fortuitous — perhaps divine timing — when Leon got a call from producer Robin Roberts and Tanya Lopez, executive vice president at Lifetime, to see if he would helm a biopic about Jackson. “I said, ‘Wow, did you guys know I was waking up every day listening to this music?’”
For Brooks, best known for Orange Is the New Black, stepping into the shoes of Mahalia Jackson was a scary challenge — especially, Brooks says, because she also had to step into the gospel singer’s church robes, too. “My mother’s a minister and my dad’s a deacon,” Brooks says. “They have a lot to be proud of, but I also felt the pressure in wanting to make their church home proud, and making Greenville, South Carolina proud.”
For Leon, who previously directed Brooks as Beatrice in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing, there was no doubt in his mind that Brooks could deliver the goods as Jackson — and then some. “I didn’t want a singer who could act,” he says. “I wanted an actress who can act, who’s also a singer. Danielle Brooks is an actress that can deliver that. She’s a leading lady. She can do it all.”
Despite a Tony-nominated turn in the Broadway musical adaptation of The Color Purple, Brooks isn’t best known for her singing — which Mahalia could (and should) change. Brooks performed the songs live, bringing the Queen of Gospel back to life. But she also saw in Jackson a strong, powerful role model for herself as a performer, as a public figure and as a Black woman.
“I can’t tell you how many times my mom would call me just in tears of how thankful she was that I finally got to tell a story that everybody can watch, and to also tell the story of such a strong, resilient black woman,” Brooks says. “I wanted to embody that fully. So I had to let go of all of my own insecurities, to portray her as honestly and truthfully as I could. One of the biggest gifts she could have given me was to continuously trust God, and to show the world all of the goodness and talent that you have, to bring it and not be ashamed of it — to not make yourself smaller to make others feel good.”
This THR Presents is brought to you by Lifetime; additional Q&As and other supplementary content can be viewed in THR‘s new public hub at THRPresents.HollywoodReporter.com.
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