'Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia' Review: Film hits some high notes but Danielle Brooks leaves a lot to be desired
The film also portrays the camaraderie that Mahalia and Martin Luther King shared, which led to her inspiring King to share his dream
Mahalia Jackson, the renowned gospel singer and civil rights activist, certainly had a fascinating life, perhaps too interesting to fit into a one-and-a-half-hour film. What happens as a result in Lifetime's ‘Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia’ is that the film moves clumsily from one stage of Mahalia's life to another. For example, there is literally a blink and you'll miss it scene showing Mahalia's life as domestic help, which adds nothing to the film or our understanding of how this young girl truly rose out of deep poverty to become Mahalia Jackson.
Danielle Brooks plays Mahalia, but while Danielle may have been brilliant in her role as 'Taystee' on 'Orange Is the New Black', she leaves a lot to be desired with this performance. Danielle is an extremely acclaimed stage actor as well, but unfortunately, her exaggerated expressions which may work on stage, just come across as extremely overbearing on screen.
This seems to be the case with most of the actors in the film, most of whom are veteran stage actors. However, Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango does a convincing job as Mahalia’s long-time pianist Mildred Falls, who isn't afraid to stand up to Mahalia’s controlling personality.
The film doesn’t shy away from showing that Mahalia, in spite of her many great virtues, was far from perfect, though she expected perfection from those around her. In the film, Mahalia is portrayed as letting her success go to her head. She is also accused by those closest to her of becoming far too judgemental about how they reflect on her. We also see that Mahalia tended to lose herself in her rather ill-fated relationships. Mahalia's two husbands aren't focused on as much in the film, as her deep friendship with Martin Luther King (Rob Demery). The part of the film which centers around King is interesting, even if the actor playing him often seems out of depth, portraying an icon who had so much impact and charisma.
We do know that King and Jackson were friends in real life, but it would be interesting to understand if the two had as casual and easy a relationship as portrayed in the film. A friendship that was so close that Mahalia's second husband in the film is portrayed as being jealous of it. The film builds up to the March on Washington in 1963, when Mahalia at King's request sang the gospel classic, 'I’ve Been ‘Buked, and I’ve Been Scorned' to a crowd of over 250,000. But it wasn't just her voice that Mahalia contributed on that day. Mahalia helped to steer the course of history, by famously urging King to 'Tell them about the dream', thus making the 'I have a dream' speech a reality.
It is not surprising that with their places in history so interwoven, the film shows Mahalia absolutely devastated when her friend and spiritual mentor King is assassinated. This is the part of the film which really gives the goosebumps and tears, as we see real life footage of the mourning that followed King's death. It also serves as an awakening in the film, for Mahalia to apologise to those she has alienated. Another scene that brings on the waterworks is when Mahalia reaches out to her old friend and pianist Mildred, who she had distanced herself from for years. She finds Mildred crippled with arthritis and unable to play the piano. Mahalia then takes her to the church where they met for the first time, and launches into song. Inspired by the sense of community around her, Mildred accompanies Mahalia on the piano one last time. In a full circle moment for the film, just as it had been when she was a young girl, people now crowd the streets outside the door listening to Mahalia sing.
The film doesn't focus on Mahalia's later years which were plagued by ill health, but instead leaves her fans on a high note. 'Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia' premiered on April 3 at 8 pm on Lifetime.