ABOVE PHOTO: Ericka Nicole Malone (Photo courtesy: Ericka Nicole Malone)
By Kharisma McIlwaine
As the first gospel great, Mahalia Jackson paved the way for many artists spanning multiple generations. Jackson was the first gospel artist to tour Europe, and the first to appear on the Billboard charts for two weeks. Known for being an advocate for the civil rights movement and a dear friend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson used her voice in many ways to effect change.
Quadruple-threat; writer, actress, producer and director Ericka Nicole Malone brings “Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story” to life as the writer and executive producer of the film. “Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story” stars Ledisi as Mahalia Jackson, Columbus Short as Dr. King, Wendy Raquel Robinson, Janet Hubert, Vanessa Williams, Corbin Blue and Keith David. Malone spoke with the SUN about the importance of telling Mahalia Jackson’s inspiring story.
Hailing from Louisville, Kentucky, Malone’s love for creativity began early. Her mother recognized her gifts and helped support her.
“My mom kind of knew very early that I had a talent with writing,” Malone said. “I auditioned for the Youth Performing Arts School and majored in drama and theater. My senior year, I took a playwriting class. My teacher said, ‘You have a lot of talent — I want you to stay after school for this playwriting class.’ For some reason, I did it, and my mom picked me up every single day. It was amazing. I did my first mini-play at 17 years old.”
Malone went on to major in drama and theater at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio on a full scholarship. After experiencing problems adjusting as one of the only Black students, she decided to switch schools to pursue her passion elsewhere. She utilized her gifts to help her follow her dream.
“My mom said, ‘You can go to a different school, but you have to pay for it.’ So, I would write plays to pay for tuition,” Malone said. “I would charge three dollars a ticket and I would have the Que’s, the AKAs, the Deltas, the Zetas and the Sigmas there. You’d have to make these kinds of alliances to get people to come to your plays. It was an amazing experience because back then three dollars was like $30, so that was a lot of money for a college student. Being good enough to get people to come to plays and getting the students to star in them and come to rehearsals when they had class was really difficult. I was really able to understand how to talk to actors, how to make things happen and how to promote. I continued to write plays and take them all over the country.”
After completing several national runs as a playwright, Malone went on to explore another medium — television. She wrote a sitcom pilot called “Ward of The State” which she and her business partner produced. The sitcom, which they financed themselves, starred Janet Hubert and Vanessa Estelle Williams. After completing the pilot and learning more about the inner workings of Hollywood, Malone took three years to take classes to hone her writing skills. Shortly thereafter, she was introduced to “Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story.”
“About 2017, a producer asked me about “Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story,” Malone said. “I wrote it and shopped it around Hollywood, and then my business partner and I said, ‘You know what? We’ll do it ourselves. We’ll just produce it ourselves, because we can protect the quality of how we want the movie to be projected.’”
It is a beautiful story Malone crafted as a tribute to Jackson’s legacy. The all-star cast captured the essence of these iconic historical figures brilliantly.
“We produced “The Mahalia Jackson Story,” not realizing at the time we’d get such amazing talent like director Denise Dowse and producer Vince Allen — not even considering that she would be Mahalia Jackson,” Malone said. “I was a huge fan of Ledisi anyway. I didn’t know Columbus Short, who I’ve always been a huge fan of, would play Dr. King and that he would play [him] in such an amazing way. Ledisi tore apart these different moments in Mahalia’s life. She transcended from the innocence to the strength. She just wanted to understand, especially with Mahalia being from New Orleans, because she’s from New Orleans — another serendipitous moment. She wanted to understand what she (Jackson) went through as an artist in that time, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and for her to put that aside to march for us —and to help finance a lot of Dr. King’s marches — was amazing.”
“Keith David who played the music executive, Wendy Raquel Robinson, who we’re used to seeing in funny roles, Vanessa Estelle Williams, who’s awesome, Corbin Blue as Cab Calloway, Keith Robinson from “Dream Girls” and then Janet Hubert playing the iconic Aunt Duke, Mahalia’s aunt who she was named after and music supervisor Paul Wright,” Malone said. “It’s just been a dream come true. To bring all of that into this arena has been amazing.”
With a body of work and a global impact as big as Jackson’s, Malone spoke about the challenges of incorporating as much as possible into this script.
“She (Jackson) has such a huge bandwidth,” Malone said. “I wanted to tell her story and not just say she was born here, then she did this, then she did this. I wanted to show some of the abuse she received at the hands of Aunt Duke and her losing her mother at a very young age. That kind of was the thread throughout her life that was the engine that kept her going — wanting to hold onto her mother’s dreams while battling her aunt’s doubt in her. Both of those things were engines. I also really wanted to show the kind of innocence she had until later. She was an astute businesswoman as the decades went on. She would not perform until she got her money upfront. She even turned down Las Vegas for $25,000 a week because they served alcohol.”
At the height of her career, Jackson had an impact on the world that no other gospel artist had ever achieved.
“I think it was important for her to understand that this was something that can draw all races,” Malone said. “Gospel is for the world. She wanted to branch out and she did. She was well loved in Europe. For her to be in Europe and be able to sing in front of thousands of Europeans, but then come to small marches, small churches and open the rallies was incredible — and she was doing all this while she was sick.”
“Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story” is such an important story for the world to see.
The NAACP recently recognized this film for its vital impact with three NAACP Image Award nominations including: outstanding independent motion picture, outstanding breakthrough performance in a motion picture (Ledisi) and outstanding breakthrough creative for Ericka Nicole Malone. Malone expressed her hopes for what audiences will take away from the film.
“I really wanted “Mahalia” to be an influential moment in this world,” she said. “It’s a civil rights fight for us. We owe it to her and to Dr. King, who literally gave up his life for us to sit here and have this conversation. They sacrificed everything and I just wanted everyone to get a glimpse of these amazing people and this amazing woman. Columbus and Ledisi did an amazing job. I hope people see themselves in this movie. Mahalia was married twice. She was trying to find love. She would lose and win again, and she was sick. With this pandemic, all of us have been thrown against the rocks, having to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off. In the end, Mahalia rose again. I hope people will see this movie and say to themselves, ‘I can rise again.’”
For more information on “Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story,” follow @RememberMeMahaliaJacksonStory on IG. Also, be sure to follow Ericka Nicole Malone across social media platforms @ErickaNicoleMalone. “Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story” is available to stream on Hulu — it is a must-see!
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