The world conspired to make sure of two things: Danielle Brooks would play Mahalia Jackson and Kenny Leon would direct her.
Now “Mahalia” debuts at 8 p.m. Saturday on Lifetime, rerunning at 11:03 p.m. and then at 5:30 p.m. the next day, Easter Sunday.
Jackson (shown here) was a gospel star – the first to win a Grammy – and an ally of Martin Luther King. People recall different first impressions:
– To Brooks, Jackson was simply the friendly face she saw in a poster in her girlhood church, in small-town South Carolina. “She stood out to me because of her skin, because of her round face and her smile,” Brooks told the Television Critics Association. “I saw myself.”
– To Leon, she was the voice he heard throughout his childhood … and then heard again when he retreated to Atlanta during the pandemic. That’s when he decided, “in the spirit of my mother, I’m going to listen to Mahalia Jackson every day, for the first hour.”
– And to Robin Roberts, who produced the film? “I remember that iconic, black-and-white picture of Mahalia – the big face and looking up,” se said. “And I remember we had an old record player and she was always on it.”
Brooks’ childhood was in Simpsonville, then a town of about 14,000. She sang often at the church … before realizing that many of those songs were originated by the lady in the poster.
For a time, Brooks’ music was set aside. She studied theater at Juilliard, did some plays, then co-starred in “Orange is the New Black,” getting three Image Award nominations.
She finally nudged back to the music side in the “Color Purple” revival on Broadway. “That gave the world the knowledge that I sing, which a lot of people don’t know.” Playing the role that Oprah Winfrey had done in the movie, Brooks was surrounded by stars.
“I had the privilege of working with Jennifer Hudson…. And she would say, ‘You should play Mahalia Jackson.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ And I didn’t think too hard about it.”
Then Jennifer Holliday joined the show. “She said the same thing. And I was like, ‘What? Maybe this is a sign’ …. And I immediately started grabbing books.”
That was in 2016. Two years later, Leon was directing a Shakespeare in the Park production, when he asked Brooks to open “Much Ado About Nothing,” by singing “What’s Going On?”
“She’s like, ‘Marvin Gaye in Shakespeare?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I want to run 2018 into 1500.’” She did it “and I was like, ‘That woman has everything.’”
Two years later, Broadway was in its shutdown and Leon went home to meditate, exercise and listen to Mahalia Jackson records. Seven weeks later, Roberts – better known as a “Good Morning, America” anchor — called about doing the movie.
There was still one problem, Roberts recalled: “I was like, ‘Who could play Mahalia?’”
He suggested Brooks and the process was started. The face in Brooks’ poster – the voice inRoberts’ girlhood and in Leon’s morning meditations – was about to be brought back to life.