Danielle Brooks Opens Up About Portraying Gospel Legend Mahalia Jackson: ‘Most of Us Only Know Her a Civil Rights Leader and Gospel Singer’

South Carolina’s very own actress Danielle Brooks recently discussed her challenges in captivating viewers in her portrayal of gospel icon Mahalia Jackson in the first film about the legendary singer, “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia.”

The feature film is executive produced by “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, Linda Berman, as well as Brooks, and directed by famed Atlanta stage director Kenny Leon. 

Actress Danielle Brooks shares an image of herself in character as Mahalia Jackson alongside the gospel legend. @daniebb3/Instagram

Atlanta Black Star caught up with the leading actress ahead of the film’s Easter weekend premiere to discuss her experience in taking on the role. Before setting foot on location to film, Brooks says her priority was figuring out who the woman behind such a legendary voice really was. 

“I was like, ‘Who is she?’ You know, most of us only know her as the civil rights leader and the queen of gospel music. But who is she? What makes her human?” were just a few of the questions Brooks sought to answer while researching Jackson.

What she found was a woman who owned businesses, a woman who battled numerous health issues, and rebounded time and time again. All the while the New Orleans-born singer was uplifting a nation alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a turning point in American history.

“You know, I feel like normally when we see these movies we don’t get a real glimpse into their relationship, and the intimacy of their friendship,” Brooks said of Jackson and King’s connection. “I wanted to make sure we had a moment where you see these two people, how in need they are of each other’s ministry, and I feel like we captured that within our film.”

“I want people to know what a strong [woman], she was on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ she toured Europe, she played Carnegie Hall. A Black woman at that time in this country doing it on her own terms,” is what Roberts hopes people will take away from the film.

“People wanted her to be a part of secular music, or maybe the blues, and she held fast to what she felt was her purpose, and that was to make a difference, and, boy, did she,” added Roberts while speaking with “The View.”

The film also captures Brooks displaying her own vocal interpretation of some of Jackson’s most iconic songs. 

“I loved ‘Didn’t It Rain’ because we actually got to imitate what happened, which she sang in the rain.” For Brooks, filming the rainy scene was a full-circle moment after learning all she could about Jackson, which included reading the record liner notes for any gem of insight.

It comes as no coincidence that at the drop of a dime Brooks can effortlessly belt out a portion of any of Jackson’s repertoire.

“‘Precious Lord.’ Getting to have my take on that very classic song and ‘Move On Up a Little Higher,’ I really enjoyed singing that,” she recalls. Brooks’ own vocal abilities first captivated audiences while she was part of “The Color Purple” Broadway cast alongside Cynthia Erivo.

“I think it was so much fun to remind people that I sing. It’s a shocker. People don’t know that I have a Grammy in my house from doing ‘The Color Purple’ and singing in that.” But as far exploring a full-fledged singer career goes, Brooks says it is not an idea she plans to entertain. 

“I would explore it again within a character, and I would do some mini concerts maybe here and there for fun, but to take it on as calling myself a singer, it doesn’t excite me.”

For now, audiences will have to enjoy her performance as the gospel icon in the film, as well as her vocals on the soundtrack.

“Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia” airs April 3 at 8 p.m. Eastern Time on Lifetime.

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