Remember Me is a conflicting but mildly satisfying biopic on the life of Mahalia Jackson.
Published on April 6, 2023
Rating 3 /5
Regarding biopics about singers and civil rights activists, Mahalia Jackson is an obvious choice for fulfilling both. She rose to become a famous gospel singer and went even further by participating in the fight for the rights of African-Americans. But depicting her history requires more than melodrama and music, which is sadly what the film Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story reduces its titular character to be so sensationalized that it’s never as great as it could be.
The good news is that Ledisi does a fine job playing Jackson, brimming with passion in her desires for fame and a voice to match her iconography. She shines from the moment she bursts onto the screen, as in her dramatic first scene where she’s denied the front entry to a club she performs at. After taking the kitchen route, she boasts that she doesn’t have to take this and then breaks into song. Despite her singing being strong, the musical segment is enough to give one pause and question what type of film this is trying to be. Is it a musical of Mahalia’s life or a dramatic recreation fit for Oscar bait? The answer might be both, and they constantly clash to the point where nearly both are undermined.
The film dips in and out of many ways to tell its story. The framing device is Mahalia giving a radio interview about her life story. Her sordid history of growing up is covered, where her mother’s death and cruel upbringing painted a dire worldview until she ventured out of the rural Midwest and over to Chicago. Her eyes open up to a world where black people not only don’t have to beckon to the whims of white people but can even be stars. This leads to some solid sequences where Jackson finds herself being dazzled by the likes of Cab Calloway. She figures that could be her someday. The eager agent Ink Williams (Keith David) could make it happen if he doesn’t trick her.
Ledisi’s performance is the only thing holding this picture together as it moseys around Jackson’s history, highlighting only the bullet points. The fluctuation between her singing career and involvement in civil rights waters down both sides to overly simplistic scenes. Halfway through the picture, Jackson becomes involved with Martin Luther King Jr (Columbus Short). Short does a decent job slipping into this role, but he’s served up scenes that feel far too routine. During dinner, King speaks about his iconic dream in a slow and revealing manner. The music swells as the film attempts to weave some wonder for the origins of hope. But considering how many scenes follow this exact format, it comes off as more dramatic than it should be for these many essential moments.
Although the civil rights aspects are still crucial to Jackson’s career, her musical career scenes shine far brighter. This goes beyond the fact that Ledisi has an amazing voice built for powerful gospel singing, making every musical moment a treat for the ears. Her struggles in this area carry power for how hard she fights to be seen as a singer that should be taken seriously. It was great to witness her taking charge of her career, highlighting how she won’t perform at clubs with booze and demands to be paid from stingy venues. There’s also some energy in the scene where Ink stiffs her on her contract, arguing about the dying nature of gospel music, while the film cuts between a rousing gospel melody. It doesn’t matter if Jackson’s biting back about misrepresenting God during this scene makes it feel like a For Your Consideration sequence. It works so well.
Remember Me is a conflicting but mildly satisfying biopic on the life of Mahalia Jackson. It’s worth watching for the lead performance alone, and it’s sure to become an easy choice for classroom viewing on the history of civil rights. In terms of showcasing Jackson as a singing force, this film mostly gets the job done that it’s enough to overlook its more melodramatic interpretations.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.