Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia
By Jennifer Green,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Biopic has positive messages, some violence.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Anything is possible with talent, especially if you respect your talent and don't let others exploit it. Having faith in God is like having faith in other intangible essentials in life, like freedom, hope, and love. The Civil Rights movement was just, and equal rights for Blacks were long overdue in the US by the time of the March on Washington in 1963.
Positive Role Models
Mahalia is deeply religious and seeks and worships God above all else. For this reason, and because it's the way she was raised by a strict aunt, she refuses throughout her life to sing anything other than gospel music. She's also skeptical of Whites and demands cash payments up front throughout her career. Her relatives were slaves and she was pulled out of school in the fourth grade. Despite a college degree, her first husband has trouble finding professional work in his field. Blacks stand up to racist oppression in small and big ways.
Violence & Scariness
Mahalia's parents and grandparents died when she was little. As an adult, she has a hysterectomy after she bleeds following a concert. Doctors find non-cancerous tumors as well, but she says she doesn't trust doctors because they "experiment" on Black people. Her fiancé dies of bone cancer. Her pianist suffers arthritis in her hands and puts them in boiling water before a concert. Archive footage shows policemen pushing back civil rights protestors with water hoses and barking dogs. Burned buildings, fires, and armed guards on the streets are shown in archive footage following Martin Luther King, Jr's assassination.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Mahalia kisses her husbands. She wears lingerie in one scene. Her fiancé kisses her feet and tells her she's all he wants in the world. When she first meets the handsome Reverend Russell, she says she'd let him drop her in the water "again and again" if she weren't already baptized.
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The "N" word is used once. "Ass," "hell," "devil," "Lord."
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Products & Purchases
Apollo Records, Columbia Records, Carnegie Hall, and the Newport Jazz Festival are all shown as playing a role in Mahalia's career and rise to fame.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Adults, including Martin Luther King, Jr, smoke. Some also drink liquor or beer, including Mahalia's piano player, who drinks in part to counter the pain of arthritis in her hands.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia tells the inspiring life story of a legendary Black gospel singer, a role played and sung by Danielle Brooks. The real-life Mahalia Jackson overcame obstacles like poverty and racism, and she showed integrity throughout her life by staying true to her religious faith despite troubling current events or temptations to make even more money by singing secular music. Some potentially upsetting scenes include archive footage of civil rights protestors being beaten back by armed guards, water hoses, and barking dogs; the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., depicted here as a friend of Mahalia's; and illnesses (Mahalia has a hysterectomy, her pianist dips her arthritic hands in boiling water, a man dies of bone cancer). The story references many of the troubling ways racism affected Black people's lives in the US in the 20th century, from the roots of slavery to fears of medical experimentation to unfair or violent treatment to segregated neighborhoods and businesses to unequal professional opportunities. Yet Mahalia triumphed on the uniqueness of her voice and her dedication to gospel music, and the film includes a lot of that music. She also adopted a boy she found on the street and regularly provided people with money, gifts, and food. Adults, including Martin Luther King, Jr, smoke, and some also drink liquor or beer. The "N" word is used once. Other language includes "ass," "hell," "devil," "Lord." Mahalia kisses her husbands.
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Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia
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What's the Story?
Coming from humble beginnings in the segregated South in the first half of the 20th century, Mahalia Jackson (Orange is the New Black's Danielle Brooks) rose to become the most respected and popular gospel singer of her day. Five decades of her life story are depicted in ROBIN ROBERTS PRESENTS: MAHALIA, from 1923 until nearly her death in 1972. We follow her from segregated Louisiana to Chicago, where she rises to fame following a best-selling album recorded for Apollo Records. She has the support of two friends, Estelle (Olivia Washington) and her pianist Mildred (Joaquina Kalukango). Mahalia goes through marriages and side businesses, but she stays true to her gospel roots and her deep faith in God. She befriends journalist Studs Terkel (Jim Thorburn) and Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. (Rob Demery), and plays a role in some key historical events.
Is It Any Good?
This made-for-TV biopic might have worked better as a mini-series, considering the vast life experience and historical significance of its subject, Mahalia Jackson, magnificently embodied by Brooks. Instead, and even at 106 minutes, the movie has to make a few awkward cuts to get through the extraordinary life of the title character of Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia. The script uses dialogues to fill in some biographical details, and these can come across as gratuitous. It also tries to bring the story to too neat a close by repeating themes from the opening act. Some attention-grabbing scenes blend archive footage of historical events with filmed footage of the actors, switching conspicuously between black-and-white and color.
But what's most important here is how much this film will signify for fans of the legendary Mahalia, as well as those directly or indirectly influenced by her work, her transmission of faith, her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, or her lived early- and mid-century experience of racial segregation in the South and wild professional success in the North and abroad. Some depictions of the treatment of Blacks in the South in this period are an essential but no less painful reminder of this country's recent history. It's almost shocking this film hasn't been made before, but that might be because Brooks wasn't available. Rare is the actress who could so fully embody the gospel legend in form and function. Not only is Brooks made to resemble Mahalia, but in interviews she has said she sang 85 percent of the film live. The many scenes of Brooks as Mahalia feeling the spirit while singing her heart out are unquestionably the highlight of this movie.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the life story of Mahalia Jackson and her role in historical events depicted or referenced in Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia. Where can you go to find out more about the life and work of Mahalia?
What is gospel music? How does it differ from other genres?
How does Mahalia engage in the Civil Rights Movement? Do you have a sense from this film of why that was important to her because of her own life experience? How would you describe that?
Mahalia turns down lucrative and prestigious offers in order to stay true to her gospel roots and her need to sing for God. How does this show integrity? How did this character strength serve her well in her life and her career?
- On DVD or streaming: April 3, 2021
- Cast: Danielle Brooks, Olivia Washington, Benjamin Charles Watson
- Director: Kenny Leon
- Inclusion Information: Black actors
- Studio: Lifetime Television
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Activism, Arts and Dance, Great Girl Role Models, History
- Character Strengths: Integrity
- Run time: 106 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: June 2, 2023
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