Friday, February 5, 2010

Prophetic Voices: Mahalia, Muddy & Martin

Mahalia Jackson

Back in the late fifties, my parents frequently took me to the Drive-In. My formative movie experiences were forged there. I saw a lot of bad films on those excursions (Butterfield 8, anyone?), but one of them found a way of staying with me for years. David Churchill attested to yesterday in his piece on The Abyss, there are sometimes scenes within terrible movies that are mini masterpieces. For me, a perfect case in point is Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), the second Hollywood adaptation of Fanny Hurst’s famous weeper.

Sirk made a number of glossy melodramas for producer Ross Hunter in the fifties including All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. These soaps would later be acclaimed as subversive by auteur film critics in the ‘80s who were basically enamoured with the rather turgid work of the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who used Sirk's style as his model particularly in The Marriage of Maria Braun). Imitation of Life is ostensibly about an aspiring actress (Lana Turner) who is also a single mother. While trying to develop a career and raise her young daughter, she gets help when she befriends a jobless black maid (Juanita Moore) and her young daughter (Susan Kohner). Once they come to live with the actress, however, the story shifts to the problems of two generations of black Americans and Lana Turner’s issues become comparatively minor.

Imitation of Life
Despite its progressive civil rights angle, Imitation of Life still remains shamelessly sentimental and manipulative - even when it deals with core issues like integration and miscegenation. But towards the end, just when the story has finally torn at all your heartstrings, an unexpected epiphany takes place. In a funeral scene held in a majestic old church, the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson comes to the pulpit and delivers one of the most majestic and powerful performances in the history of movies. The effect pretty much blows the previous two hours of tear-jerking right off the screen. Jackson sings the traditional gospel tune “Trouble of the World,” a song that proclaims the end of life’s worst trials and where one finds a final peace in God. The track is a testament of faith, but Jackson takes the composition even further. In her version, the song has the power to fully release both the anguish and triumph of the Afro-American experience – from slavery to desegregation. There is a final acceptance that in God's mercy all unrighteousness will be undone. Jackson dramatically restores all that was kitsch in Imitation of Life to art. Her rendering of the song is a benediction. For myself, at five, I was spellbound and filled with tears watching Mahalia Jackson on the massive outdoor screen.

Many years later, I was taking a trip through the U.S. during the 1991 Desert Storm preparing material for a radio documentary that never came to pass. While I was in Dallas, Texas, I was buying some postcards to mail home. As I was standing in the check-out line, the cashier had a VCR playing a movie behind her. It was just my luck that it had to be Imitation of Life. Mahalia’s great moment was mere moments away and I could feel the tears starting to well up. I wanted to get out quick, but there was a person ahead of me. I quickly put on my sunglasses, but I still managed to attract the concern of the cashier when it came time for me to pay. As she cashed me out, Mahalia’s performance was still ringing loud over her shoulder – and I dashed out.

Martin Luther King Jr.
On that day in Dallas, though, I heard many new things in Jackson’s voice as I waited in line. I heard a testimony that seemed to reach beyond the time in which she sang it. “Trouble of the World” suddenly took in events and circumstances beyond the moment it was being performed. I could hear her voice in Martin Luther King’s final speech in Memphis 1968, the night before he was murdered, especially in his declaration of reaching the mountain top and seeing a future that he knew he wouldn't be part of. I could also hear her in Muddy Waters in The Band’s 1976 Last Waltz concert, filmed by Martin Scorsese, singing “Mannish Boy” in complete acceptance that, as a man, he could command the world, and where he recognized that he was an indelible part of its making.One single camera captured every vowel and every gesture of his proud swagger.

As I quickly left the convenience store, I hopped a cab to go back to my hotel. The black cabbie was listening to a local gospel station. Suddenly, as if by divine intervention, Mahalia came on the radio. She wasn't singing “Trouble of the World” this time. But it didn't matter. I smiled as a few tears started to roll down my cheek. The cab driver caught my expression in his rear-view mirror. He looked back at me and said, “Ain’t no man a real man who don’t cry when Mahalia sings.”

Mahalia Jackson's "Trouble of the World," 1959:

Martin Luther King Jr.'s final speech in Memphis, 1968:

Muddy Waters performing "Mannish Boy" at The Band's The Last Waltz, 1976:

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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