Mahalia Jackson BioPic On Lifetime Offers Insight, Resurrection

Kevin C. Peterson
3 min readApr 28, 2021
Danielle Brooks gives honest sacred portrayal of Mahalia Jackson in a Lifetime biography released this month.

Precisely because the current generation of Americans barely recognize the seismic impact of her overarching, protean talent, her name is seldom mentioned as being among those artists who definitively and powerfully shaped the parameters of spiritual life in our nation. So, when the name of Mahalia Jackson is evoked either in conversation or during the course of comparisons about whose contributions to high culture is worthy of valued designation, listeners are likely befuddled or made inquisitive: Asking who was Mahalia Jackson? And then they query, what discrete demands did she impose upon the our aesthetic sensibilities?

Mahalia Jackson gave Black religious music the unmistakable verve it had never possessed, managing — through the power of her vocal stylings and force of personality — to reconfigure the expansive territory of sacred music. When she sang black religious staples such as God Is Real, There is a Balm in Gilead or Move On Up A Little Higher, Jackson created signal ephemeral occasions unheard until her debut.

Her vocation as a professional gospel singer spanned only two decades during the 1950s and 1960s where she rocketed into international fame. Over the course of those years her contrato voice and public presentation — whether offered within the cloistered and sanctified confines of the Black church or on the stages at the Newport Jazz Festival or Carnegie Hall — transformed African American sacred music, which had its roots in the plaintive slave field holler and work song, the chanting ring shouts, and within the wail uttered under oppressive white imposition wielded under Jim Crow.

Jackson’s life and buoyant artistic cannon is given proper review in the new biopic, Mahalia, released this month on the Lifetime network. Jackson biographer, Mark Burford, has said that her tremendous gift at song and emotive religious renderings established for her a “transformative place within the black gospel field.” The film ably interrogates the sources of Jackson’s abilities and how she uniquely honed her performance skills within the sanctified churches of New Orleans — punctuating the otherwise Black sacrosanct evangelical musical form with blues licks and jazz improvisation. We hear in Mahalia’s performances, Thomas A. Dorsey, a comtemporary of Jackson, who…

Kevin C. Peterson

Kevin Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition and Convener of the Fanueil Hall Race and Reconciliation Project. He is a social and cultural critic.