Lifetime’s most highly viewed program in four years is The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel, which defied TV-industry expectation when its premiere last week had 2.7 million views in broadcast metrics. That’s like a $30 million opening-day box office. Not as a big as Black Panther, a faux-Afrocentric juvenile fantasy, the subject is more realistic.
The problem is faux-realism. The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel intersects black women’s history with black gospel as part of the Lifetime network’s female-centric agenda.
It dramatizes how five young women from Detroit, whose mother honed their singing and musical skills, found success in the 1980s. Director Christine Swanson and writer Camille Tucker treat the Clark Sisters like Broadway and Hollywood’s Dreamgirls treated Motown’s The Supremes — as templates of bootstrap ambition and women’s tribulations. But the filmmakers and Lifetime don’t deal with what made them exceptional: the specifics of black American religion and the age-old struggle between sacred and secular aspiration.
By turning the Clark Sisters into victims, the biopic becomes one more saga about women oppressed by envious, authoritarian men, plus the stigma of conservative religion. You’d never know from this film that matriarch Mattie Moss Clark (played by actress Aunjanue Ellis) was an esteemed, innovative choral arranger driven by religious conviction to change the style of musical gospel’s powerful invocation. She conducted the Southwest Michigan State Choir, made popular through its Savoy-label albums that preserved the spiritual thrust of sanctified music like no other gospel recordings — a power and vibrancy unmatched by such mainstream gospel icons as The Staple Singers who won acclaim as offshoots of secular folk music.
Ellis’s casting presents a dark-skinned Oprah Winfrey archetype, which overlooks the thorny phenomenon of light-complexioned strivers in favor of fashionable misandry — the hardships of a woman living a sexless life out of bitterness, celibacy being unthinkable. (Nothing here matches the gospel documentary Say Amen, Somebody, in which singer Delois Barrett and her husband peaceably compromise on their competing ministries.)
In the overlooked independent film Love Your Mama (1990), Ruby L. Oliver conveyed the complex love and resentment engendered by matriarchy and the black church — through bonds of affection, awe, fear, and gratitude. Black mother figures were traditionally forces of nature, played by physically large actresses (Ethel Waters in A Member of the Wedding, Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun). Ellis just seems angry, as when she throws a shoe at an unruly chorister — an incident that should be funny for its cultural resonance, but this film is superficial about ethnic custom, self-denial, and sacrifice.
Tucker’s script simplifies Moss Clark, making her a female version of Joe Jackson in TV’s 1992 miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream, which showed the father tyrannically disciplining his talented children. “They’re better than the Jackson Five!” Ellis’ harridan mom insists about her daughters. But the Clark Sisters were not the Jackson Five. Not just entertainers, they professed a younger generation’s broadened idea of worshipping God through pop crossover. The Clark Sisters’ 1981 “You Brought the Sunshine” came from their eighth album after years of perseverance.
That hit song, derived from Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” broke the Clark Sisters out of their gospel niche at precisely the moment when hip-hop was cresting. The Clark Sisters were all big girls whose image reflected their mother’s large dreams as well as distinct hereditary conditions. Partly because of these recognizable traits, their new religious-pop (impudent vocal melisma, inventive hocking, soaring sopranos) seemed authentic. It impressed a generation that was leaning away from black religion yet was struck by youthful foundational music.
During commercial breaks, this film’s producers — Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, and Missy Elliott — testified that the Clarks’ music was reassuring given the rise of profane, secular hip-hop. But Lifetime’s subtitle, “The First Ladies of Gospel,” is a misnomer that disregards black gospel history, ignoring such pioneers as Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Sister Rosetta Tharp. This is unacceptable revisionism considering that the topic is black gospel, a faith that is incalculably responsible for African-American spiritual and social perseverance.
Yes, the musical performances by actresses portraying the Clark sisters Twinkie (Christina Bell), Denise (Raven Goodwin), Dorinda (Shelea Frazier), Jacky (Angela Birchett), Karen (Kierra Sheard) are striking, but so was Mary Bridget Davis singing as Janis Joplin on Broadway. These singer-actresses are never given a moment that conveys religious conviction — the saintliness particular to the Church of God in Christ denomination that Moss Clark and her daughters represented.
“I don’t mind being reduced to a cultural stereotype,” Carol Kane told Woody Allen in Annie Hall, but the Clark Sisters are never defined by expressive ethnic totems. Performance scenes occur randomly, in between moments of confrontation and recrimination that are not even as coherent as the stereotyping in Ava DuVernay’s disingenuous When They See Us.
None of the singing is so expressive that we feel what the Clark Sisters are feeling; the performances are reduced to show business (as in the Grammy Awards presentation where the mother joins her daughters in sequined gowns that send the church’s male elders into shock). Latifah, Blige, and Elliott should demand deeper art — something closer to Ronee Blakely’s “In the Garden” in Nashville, but not this Jennifer Hudson–American Idol–style caterwauling!
The Clark Sisters found an outlet in the church, which incubates so much talent and intelligence in black culture, against the outside world’s hostility. The holiness that church emphasized was about resisting the temptations of “the world” — a fundamental principle for moral survival. The filmmakers should have understood this the same way that India’s Satyajit Ray, in his extraordinary The Home and the World (1985), dramatized the tensions of female independence through the contrast of parochial ethics and political progress.
That Latifah, Blige, and Elliott want to see the Clark Sisters’ experiences validated evidences a great need. But this trifling TV movie neglects the essence of black American church culture, settling for the clichéd politicized feminism that disrespects black religious faith. It could well have been made by clueless white overseers on the Hollywood plantation.