‘The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel’: Why the Lifetime Biopic Resonates With Black Women

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The Lifetime network has long had a reputation for mediocre films and dramas with a campy aesthetic.In recent years, it has made an effort to distance itself from that renown, investing in the kind of content that draws a larger, more mainstream audience — and hopefully awards — as well as overall industry esteem. One such project just might be the biopic, “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel,” which premiered on April 11 to much fanfare, especially resonating most with one specific demo: black women. As a man who watched the film, and didn’t quite understand its appeal, instead of writing a critique of it, I asked black women viewers to share their thoughts on why it resounded so much.

To be sure, Lifetime hasn’t completely abandoned the kind of tabloidy women-in-peril stories (often inspired by true events, and with hilarious titles like “Crimes of Passion: She Woke Up Pregnant”) that they once thrived on, but it has bolstered its efforts recently with Emmy-nominated films, from the all-black cast “Steel Magnolias” remake, to “The Trip to Bountiful” starring Cicely Tyson, and more. And it remains one of the few networks in Hollywood telling stories specifically about women while consistently hiring women directors.

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Once in a while, it produces something that’s seemingly the perfect combination of subject matter, casting, writing, director and style, and that really resonates with audiences, like “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel.” Directed by Christine Swanson, written by Camille Tucker and Sylvia L. Jones, and executive produced by Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliott, the film premiered on April 11. The authorized musical of incomparable gospel singers, The Clark Sisters, it recounts the story of the highest-selling female Gospel group in history and their trailblazing mother, Mattie Moss Clark (Aunjanue Ellis).

Credited with bringing Gospel music to the mainstream, the five Clark sisters (Christina Bell as Twinkie, Kierra Sheard as Karen, Sheléa Frazier as Dorinda, Raven Goodwin as Denise, Angela Birchett as Jacky) overcame humble beginnings in Detroit, enduring abuse, loss, rejection, betrayal, and sibling rivalries to achieve international fame as icons of the Gospel music industry.

Ahead of its premiere, excitement for the telepic was palpable. Audiences and celebrities alike shared their anticipation for it, and social media watch parties were planned. For anyone unfamiliar with the Clark Sisters, it must have seemed like a puzzling mad frenzy.

Although there was some trepidation. Lifetime hasn’t always faired well with biopics — especially of black public figures. One notable example was “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B” (2014), which was met with denunciation in its early stages of production due to Aaliyah’s family’s disapproval of Lifetime’s decision to produce the film. Additionally, audiences were extremely critical of it after it finally aired, mocking the film on social media, as savage tweets accompanied by hashtags like #LifetimeBiopics and #LifetimeBeLike, trended. The main critiques: that star Alexandra Shipp was woefully miscast as Aaliyah; that the late singer’s controversial relationship with the much older R. Kelly was overly romanticized; and that the music covers did not do justice to Aaliyah’s original songs.

“Betty & Coretta,” the 2013 drama about the friendship between Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King, also received a drubbing for some of the very same reasons. Notably, Mary J. Blige as Shabazz was still an acting novice, which showed especially next to the veteran and classically trained Angela Bassett. And the families of both women objected to much of the film.

“My mother was not a weak, timid, insecure woman as portrayed,” Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Betty, said to the Washington Post. “She was regal, compassionate, strong, loving, beautiful, resilient and highly educated. That is why the Delta Sigma Theta sororities named academies all across this country after her, so others could be inspired how to turn triumph into tragedy.”

Most recently, when the casting for the network’s upcoming Salt-N-Pepa biopic was announced in December, it drew widespread criticism and accusations of colorism, given that the three actresses cast as the leads were all very fair-skinned.

But based on audience reactions, it appears “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel” won’t have to worry about being counted among those disappointments. It seems to have especially resonated with black women viewers, so IndieWire asked a handful of black women to share why this particular film resounded so much with them. Here’s what they had to say:

Melonee Gaines, freelance writer: The Lifetime TV movie “The Clark Sisters” resonated with me because it showed a nuanced view of black women in the church. To see a mother navigate physical abuse, misogyny, and single motherhood in this movie made the plight of black women in the church more visible. So often, we see the indoctrinated view of womanhood in the black church as a meek servant to God and her pastor, yet Dr. Mattie Clark’s portrayal showed a woman who loved her daughters despite the church angling to keep her influence and growth small. Her brilliance and stern leadership is a threat instead of an asset to the church — a narrative that continues to play out in the lives of educated Black women. When the COGIC [The Church of God in Christ] board told Dr. Clark she couldn’t sing with her daughters anymore, a maternal chord struck with me when her character said, “You are trying to keep me from my girls. These are my children. This is my calling.” A mother’s love is the true resilience for a lot of black women and this scene captured the discourse between the love for her daughters and the religious sublimation as a tool of control against women (or anybody that challenged the patriarchal structure of the COGIC church). It is absolutely taxing to believe in the mission and bring your whole self and gifts into a role, only to be told that you are too much or not enough. This was a consistent theme throughout the film and yet, the Clark sisters persevere. At the heart of The Clark Sisters, this was a movie about love: how it fuels a person, how it marries with our faith, how it’s poisoned by deep wounds and insecurities, and how it anoints our connections. Despite an oppressive history, black women have channeled all of that into gospel music to glorify a God inwardly and to [reflect] it back into the culture as the divine feminine in every anointed word and melody.

Dr. Crystal A. deGregory, historian and storyteller: “The quintessential black family story — with the storytelling we need but all to often do not want, and consequently do not often receive. It was not neat, not tidy, not spotless, not faultless; but neither was it helpless, hopeless, godless or joyless. It was everything we are, yet hope to be, and need not be in its displays of toxic patriarchy, domestic violence, church violence, lack of mental health and irrationality of shirking standard good medical practices in exchange for pronouncements of miracles that lead to perhaps unnecessary and surely premature death. It was a story of how black mothers and daughters and sisters struggle to relate, release, and respect each other as grown women. It was a story with as much greatness and resolve has it had very little of the resolution which accompanies the perfect happy endings we so often seek despite knowing otherwise in our own lives.”

Ronda Racha Penrice, cultural critic specializing in black film and TV: “It’s refreshing to see a film about real women, real black women, and their greatness. Dr. Mattie Moss Clark is a woman we never see on TV and she was very real. She was determined that her children be greater than her and gave them the grounding and foundation. And the music was just phenomenal! Best singing in a biopic ever! It truly lifted my spirits! And Aunjanue Ellis just gave a performance of a lifetime! As good as she always is, she topped herself with Dr. Mattie Moss Clark! Just incredible!”

Jackie J. Stone, writer/director: “I thought there is something to be said about patriarchy and the church, and wanting to silence Mattie Moss Clark by church male elders. I liked it. Some of the sisters weren’t so strong as actors, but I forgave them, because I don’t think they were trained actors. I appreciated the heart. It was one of the best films I have seen from the Lifetime brand. I think most people who watch Lifetime and movies like this will be touched by the emotional heart of it, the family relationships, the conflicts and hypocrisy of the black church, parental/child conflicts, seeing a reflection of themselves on screen. Centering of black women who do not look like how black women are usually centered. And Christine Swanson’s direction was strong.”

Casimir Spencer, Director, African-American Publicity at The MRKT: “Overall I thought the film was just okay, but that likely is related to Lifetime’s reputation with biopics. I enjoyed Aunjanue Ellis’ portrayal of Dr. Mattie Clark. She was phenomenal and expertly portrayed the black strong matriarch who is riddled with secret insecurities and worry. I’m not COGIC but I’ve encountered COGIC women and she definitely fit the mode of a COGIC mother of girls. The scene where she wouldn’t let one of her daughters into the house until she put on a skirt, spot on! And a great comedic, yet disturbing, scene. The casting was great overall, Raven Goodwin (Denise ‘Niecy’ Clark) and newcomer Shelèa Frazier (Dorinda Clark) were special standouts for me — both in acting and singing. I really enjoyed how the film portrayed the Clark sisters in a realistic light and didn’t sugarcoat their journey — which I think folks were weary of in the beginning. The film also carefully and accurately portrayed the nuances of black mothers and daughters and the black church — regardless of denomination. The notion of a mother doing what’s right by her daughter while satisfying the expectations of the church is a realism in black church going homes. As well as the naivety sometimes created within black church girls as a result of helicopter parenting and restricted church-“isms”. I’m not a Clark Sisters super fan but, I thoroughly enjoyed the performances and music. I give it a solid B.”

Lifetime plans encore showings of the film throughout the week.

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