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‘Orange is the New Black’s’ Danielle Brooks is Mahalia

Lifetime television recently made some revelations with the debut of five all-new movies, kicking off with the biopic event “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia,” starring Grammy® Award winner Danielle Brooks, and premiering on Saturday, April 3, showcasing the life of Gospel legend and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson.

Born in New Orleans, Mahalia Jackson (Danielle Brooks) began singing at an early age and went on to become one of the most revered Gospel figures in U.S. history, melding her music with the Civil Rights Movement. 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 and 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 in hopes that her music would encourage and inspire racial equality.

Jackson had about as tough a road as any Black artist during those times, according to the documentary that comments at the end that it isn’t sanctioned by any of her heirs. She moved to Chicago and always held onto her Gospel roots. She could have been a great Blues singer, but she said that the “blues stayed with you.” She didn’t want any of that. Her style of Gospel wasn’t the “slow, mournful” music of some, but she had a more upbeat cadence (Gospel blues style) that if you weren’t careful, got your hips to swaying while in Sunday service.

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DANIELLE BROOKS PLAYS Mahalia Jackson in the Lifetime Television movie “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia.”

But that’s not to say that Jackson didn’t experience any blue moments during her lifetime. Her first husband was a businessman, who had other designs on just what type of business he wanted to be in. He pushed Jackson to sing other genres of music, but she didn’t let up. Aside from her second husband, she had another love of her life, that she regrets not marrying—but he died after a few years of supporting her at a time when she seems the happiest. She had an often-acrimonious relationship with her piano player, Mildred Falls, a woman who she found herself apologizing to toward the end of the documentary. But this acrimony stemmed from Jackson’s quest for perfection in her music.

Jackson was successful in securing gigs singing to white audiences, notably at Carnegie Hall. However, during a time of racial segregation, she faced discrimination at every turn, particularly in 1956 when she purchased a home in the South Side of Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood. But a ray of sunshine for her was when she aligned with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and after a short friendship urged him at the 1963 March on Washington to “tell them about the dream, Martin.”

A highlight of this documentary was a clip from when Jackson sang “An Evening Prayer” and “Didn’t It Rain” at the 1958 Newport [Rhode Island] Jazz Fest. She came on at the end of a festival that ran the weekend way into Sunday morning, so the song was right on time. The audience of mostly white jazz enthusiasts had enjoyed Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, and Jackson ended her set with “The Lord’s Prayer,” which gave the audience a bit of  “church.” As a note, this doc titled “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” is worth a watch.

Jackson died in 1972 at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, IL,  at the age of 60.

From Rock’n Robin Productions and Lincoln Square Productions,  “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia” is executive produced by Robin Roberts and Linda Berman. Danielle Brooks and Kenny Leon are co-executive producers.  Leon directs from a script written by Bettina Gilois and Todd Kreidler.

The film premieres on Saturday, April 3, at 8 p.m./7 Central.

The other four films are:

“Color of Love,” starring Deborah Joy Winans and Michael Brown, premiering Sunday, April 4.

“Lust: A Seven Deadly Sins Story,” premiering Saturday, April 10, and starring Keri Hilson, Tobias Truvillion, Durrell ‘Tank’ Babbs, LeToya Luckett, Clifton Powell and Ms. Juicy.

“Envy: A Seven Deadly Sins Story,” premiering Saturday, April 17, and starring Serayah, Rose Rollins, Kandi Burruss, Donovan Christie Jr., Gregory Alan Williams, Da Brat, DC Young Fly, Clifton Powell and Hosea Chanchez.

“Beware of the Midwife,” premiering Saturday, April 24, and starring Mouna Traoré, Raven Dauda and Michael Xavier. All movies will debut at 8 p.m./7 Central.

Correction to Last Week’s Column:

My review of “The Moment of Truth” misrepresented a couple of facts:  Larry Demery betrayed his lifelong friend, Daniel Green, and they both were sentenced to life terms. Demery is scheduled to be paroled in August 2023, if he meets the conditions for release.

Later, he admitted that he didn’t see Green shoot James Jordan, as was his testimony at trial. Green is still awaiting parole.

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Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago ( or email: [email protected].

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