‘Robin Roberts Presents: The Mahalia Jackson Story’ Aims to Dignify the Southern Black Experience

The upcoming biopic “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia Jackson” — the first project produced under a partnership between “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts and Lifetime, which was inked in 2018 — is a fictionalized retelling of 40 years in the life of one of the greatest gospel singers of all time, dubbed the “Queen of Gospel.” Co-produced by Roberts’ Rock’n Robin shingle, the much-anticipated TV movie stars Tony Award nominee, SAG, and Grammy Award winning actress Danielle Brooks (“Orange is the New Black”) as the legend and civil rights trailblazer, and is directed by Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon (“Fences”).

It marks a creative reunion of Brooks and Leon after previously working together on an all-Black contemporary production of “Much Ado About Nothing” for the Shakespeare in the Park series at the Public Theater in New York City. This pleasure derived from that experience made Brooks comfortable under Leon’s direction once again.

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“I just knew that I was going to be in good hands,” said the actress during the Lifetime’s CTAM Winter 2021 Press Tour, on Tuesday. Leon and Roberts hand-picked Brooks to play the iconic gospel singer, which she viewed as both a blessing and a moment of intimidation when she realized how much responsibility she would have to assume. “When it came down to actually stepping into [Mahalia Jackson’s] shoes, I had to hang onto to faith, because I realized that I would have to sing all these songs. But it’s something that I’d been studying, watching every YouTube video of her, reading everything that I could possibly read, looking at pictures of her, because pictures can tell so many stories, and just soaking her up. So when we started, I had to let go and trust the universe to do its thing and get out of the way, which is something that we’ve all had to do during this time.”

Born in New Orleans, Jackson began singing at an early age and went on to become one of the most revered gospel figures in United States history, merging her music with her work as a civil rights activist. Her recording of the song “Move on Up a Little Higher” sold millions of copies, skyrocketing her to international fame and gave her the opportunity to perform at diverse settings, including in front of a racially integrated audience at the prestigious Carnegie Hall, as well as at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball.

An active supporter of the civil rights movement, Jackson sang at numerous rallies, including the March on Washington in 1963 alongside her dear friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in hopes that her music would encourage and inspire racial equality. Jackson took centerstage at the historic march, where she not only performed as the lead-in to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but she also played a direct role in turning that speech into one of the most memorable and meaningful in American history.

“Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia Jackson Story” is emblematic of the kind of mixed fiction and non-fiction programming that will be produced under Roberts’ deal with Lifetime, as part of the cable network’s push to increase its load of original TV movies.

“I partnered with Lifetime a few years ago, and what I appreciate about them is not quantity, it’s quality, and taking the time to find the right stories,” Roberts said. “We had this one for a little over a year, waiting for the right time, then COVID hit, and that slowed everything down. But I also think part of the hesitation in going forward with it was whether we could find the right actress to play Mahalia. But things started to speed up when Kenny said ‘Danielle Brooks” – I get chills all over again just thinking about it — when he knew that he could have her, and the entire cast, many who knew each other, and the timing of it all. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

The producers and director also promise that the films brings a dignity to the Black South that previous titles about the Black Southern experience may have overlooked or dismissed. During the panel, Leon, Roberts, and Brooks were quick to tout their Southern roots, which each believes positively influenced certain production decisions. “I grew up in the South, I live in the South, I am a Southern storyteller, last time I did something with Lifetime it was “Steel Magnolias”, my mother was a gospel singer, and I still am Christian,” director Leon said. “So I am a Southern, Black, Christian storyteller, and I’ve worked with Danielle Brooks, who is so beautiful, so clear, so funny, and I knew that I wanted to work with her again.”

Brooks is joined by an impressive list of Broadway stars including Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango (“Slave Play”), Jason Dirden (“Fences”), Olivia Washington (“The Butler”) and Rob Demery (“Lovecraft Country”). Dirden stars as Russell Roberts, the Reverend who falls for Mahalia when they first meet in the late 1940s while Kalukango takes on the role of Mildred, Mahalia’s talented and opinionated long-time pianist. Meanwhile, Washington portrays Estelle, a piano teacher Mahalia meets at church who goes on to become her life-long friend, and Demery stars as the influential civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr.

From Rock’n Robin Productions and Lincoln Square Productions, “Mahalia” is executive produced by Roberts and Linda Berman. Brooks and Leon are co-executive producers. The script was written by Bettina Gilois (“Bessie”) and stage director and dramaturge Todd Kreidler.

“Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia Jackson” will premiere Saturday, April 3 at 8 p.m. ET, marking the 53rd year since Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

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