For Danielle Brooks, Playing Mahalia Jackson Was a “God-Ordained, Universe-Sent Type Thing”

“Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Mahalia Jackson called out to a young Martin Luther King Jr. before his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. On that hot day in 1963, she not only changed the direction of King’s address, but also changed the trajectory of history forever. Known as the voice of the civil rights movement, the legendary gospel singer has been ever present in shaping the soundtrack of change. From her support of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott to singing the national anthem at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball in 1961, Jackson has used her voice to spread gospel music to international stages and audiences around the world. This month, her story finally came to the screen in Lifetime’s new film Mahalia, produced by Robin Roberts.

For actor and Grammy Award-winning singer Danielle Brooks, the role was a natural fit. Coming from a strong faith- and church-based background, she had identified with Jackson’s journey long before she was cast. Below, catches up with Brooks following the release of the critically acclaimed film to talk about its nods to today’s social movements, the lack of historical representation for women of revolution, and the impact the role has had on her life.

It’s hard to depict a woman who moved mountains historically, but you did an excellent job portraying Mahalia. Mentally, how did you prepare to get into character for a historical piece?

It definitely felt like I was supposed to play Mahalia. It feels like a God-ordained, universe-sent type thing. There was what I realize has been so many similarities with who we are as people. Mahalia grew up in a church. I did as well. My mother’s a minister, father is a deacon. Mahalia spent every second in church, just as much as I did. Both Southern girls. Both women trying to navigate this industry while sticking to our morals.

Also, Mahalia was a woman who was going through the Spanish flu in 1918, and here we are in our own pandemic, and racial tensions are as high here in America as they were back then. There’s just so many things to who we are as women, as Black women, but the fun part about this was she’s a real human being that was on this earth at one point and that leaves room for so much research.

I had actually been researching her for, like, six years, because I had this dream to play her ever since I was in The Color Purple and a few of my castmates said, “You should play Mahalia Jackson. Your voice sounds like her.” So the seed was planted then, and I just started saying, “What is it about her? What do I not know? What makes her human?”

Similar to Martin Luther King, we have idolized [leaders] to the point of making them close to saints in our eyes where we have lost the humanity of the person. Until I found that, that’s when I was like, “You know what? Now we can really try and get this story on its feet, because there’s something here.” So I read books about her life and listened to audio recordings from her on talk shows back in the day and watched YouTube clips of her on the Dinah Washington show and Ed Sullivan, and watched her sing with Martin Luther King at his rallies. There was a lot to pull from. The most fun part was listening to records of her, and then on the back of the record, it explaining what was going on during the concert if it was a live record.

I don’t think anyone could have told this story like a Black woman, otherwise there would be so many cultural gray areas. How do you feel Robin Roberts made the story uniquely her own as an executive producer?

What I appreciate is that she waited to find her Mahalia. She said she had this story for a while, which was unbeknownst to me. She said she just didn’t have her Mahalia yet, and that’s what I mean when [I say] I feel like the universe really works in your favor sometimes, to help you fulfill your purpose. Kenny Leon, our director, was that missing link for us to find each other, because I was on her radar, but she didn’t know I could sing. She says when they told her that they thought I should play Mahalia, she was like, “Taystee from Orange Is the New Black? She can sing?” But Kenny and I had worked together on Much Ado About Nothing in Shakespeare in the Park with the public theater, and when we were there, I remember us sitting and talking and he asked me, “What do you want to do next?” I said, “I want to play Mahalia Jackson.” He was like, “Well, I want to direct it.” I said, “Okay then.”

A year later, in the middle of the pandemic, I was working with Robin. It was nice, because I’m grateful for women who leave room on the ladder for you to climb, you know? She allowed me to come on as co-executive producer. So I had a seat at the table in a different way than I’ve had in the past, being a producer on things. They were really leaning into my leadership and my knowledge and what I had to offer without hesitation, without belittling me or making me feel less than.

Lifetime and Robin Roberts, Kenny Leon, and writer Todd Kreidler all lifted me up on another level by allowing me room to express my ideas. It’s really cool when you see your ideas come to life and fruition and it works. Thank you, Jesus. It worked. You start to trust your instincts a little bit more.

Mahalia was described as the voice of the civil rights movement. How did you prepare for the singing portion of the film?

The singing part was probably the most challenging to get out of my head, because I grew up in the church and have been surrounded by multiple not singers, but sangers. Sangers with an A. I just know the expectation when you carry the robe, the gospel robe of the queen of gospel. There’s going to be expectations for you to bring the heat when it comes to singing. That’s just where studying came in. Our voices live in similar places but are very different, because she phrases longer than I do. She’s very loose and lets the spirit move her voice where I’d rather plan out what I’m going to sing, so I know where to go. My costar Joaquina clowns me sometimes, because the similarity is Mahalia would just choose whatever note she wanted to sing, and sometimes I do the same thing.

But that’s the interesting thing, too, is Mahalia didn’t read music and neither does Danielle, you know? You had to come from your heart and your gut, as Kenny’s mother said. We spent a week in Atlanta, prerecording the music. That time was very valuable to find her voice, because we would try different things. Sometimes we would get intimate spaces, intimate booths, and then sometimes we would get in spaces that felt like a church that made my voice ping off the walls in a different way. It was a journey, and I’m glad that we finally got there and I felt comfortable, because singing has always been a very vulnerable thing for me. And that’s probably why I try to do it more than not, because I want to overcome my fears. That’s why I try not to get in my own way, and it’s always been easy for me to hide behind a character versus me singing as Danielle. It was nice to get to let Mahalia lead me vocally in places I’ve never been.

I think many people were unaware that Mahalia was the one who said, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” And it’s to the fault of many history books, because Black powerful women have always been left out due to racism and sexism. When did you personally first learn of Mahalia’s story and impact?

You’re so right. A lot of people don’t know, and women do get erased from history, but that’s the crazy thing. The exciting thing for me was Martin listened to a Black woman in that moment. Let’s see more of that. I love that nod of respect to her. I found Mahalia when I was around seven, eight years old at church. We had posters in our Sunday school classes of prominent leaders in the Black community. So we had MLK and Jesse Jackson, and Mahalia was up there. That’s where I first remember seeing her. It was very generic at the time. It was just as the queen of gospel music. I knew she was from New Orleans. That was kind of it, but in that moment, I saw myself through her image. I could relate to her full cheeks and that smile and her skin tone. Just made me lean in to, “Who is this?” Someone that I see myself in.

Do you still carry pieces of her with you after the role?

I’m actually really sad to have let her go. I wish I could have just lived in her body a little bit more. There were just so many gifts I felt like she gave me or reminded me of. One is to continue to thank God every day for your blessings. My mind is like, “Don’t forget that.” Stay true to yourself. You don’t have to bend yourself to fit someone else’s idea of what you should be. She reminded me to know that your gift will make room for you.

There are a lot of things that she has given me, and I wish I could spend more time, but at the same time, I’m so glad that we’ve gotten to light her candle again, and we’ve gotten to shed light on Mildred Falls, which a lot of people don’t know about her, but it’s based on a real person who played with her for over 20 years. I just hope that this opens even more doors for women like Rosetta Tharpe or Ella Fitzgerald.

What lasting impact do you want Mahalia to have on audiences?

I hope that people continue to hold onto faith and hope that things will get better. I know this is a tough time for people, being isolated, feeling alone, and not having work, wondering when things will get back to normal, but there’s always a new day on the horizon. Be hopeful and know that your joy is on its way. Just do not give up.

But at the end of the day, this, to me, is just really to Mahalia. This one’s for her. The audience can think what they want, but this one’s for her. There’s so much that she did for our country when it came to swaying votership in certain political parties and political moments, and [her] closeness with JFK, and just pushing through the civil rights movement, and before then, being on The Ed Sullivan Show, starting her own Mahalia Jackson show, and being on the Dinah Washington show. All these shows didn’t want her, they wanted her talent. I just commend her for fighting through those moments.

The cast and crew are all incredibly talented. Did you have any favorite bonding moments on set?

Working with Joaquina [Kalukango] and Olivia [Washington], three dark-skinned, chocolate women, all getting to share a moment together. How often do you see that? Three dark-skinned women getting to play leads all in the same movie. So that was a highlight, but we all knew each other before. At the time that “Body” song came out by Megan Thee Stallion—that was a fun moment for us. Trying to keep it cute and social distance. Most of the time, I was either on the set working or trying to sleep with my daughter kicking me in my neck at three in the morning—my one-year-old at the time. Trying to balance it was really, really challenging.

Before you go, can you tell us what new projects you are working on that we can look forward to in the next year?

I’m doing Peacemaker, a show for HBO Max, where I play Leota Adebayo. It’s directed and written by James Gunn, who did Guardians of the Galaxy and Suicide Squad, which has been really cool. Then I’m going to be hosting a show for Netflix!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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