The 30th Pan African Film Festival opened up with the world premiere of “Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story” Starring Ledisi

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Ledisi shares how the film’s director and producer helped her find her voice as an actress

By Jessica L. Dupree

The 30th PAN AFRICAN Film + Arts Festival brought out an astonishing line-up of celebrity guests and dignitaries. With the opening night world premiere of “Remember Me, The Mahalia Jackson Story,” music and film lovers were able to explore the personal life of an Icon who is widely considered one of the most influential Gospel performing artists of the 20th century.

Grammy award-winning recording artist Ledisi who plays Mahalia Jackson, Actor Columbus Short who plays Martin Luther King Jr., Janet Hubert who plays Aunt Duke, along with castmates Wendy Raquel Robinson, Vanessa A. Williams, and Keith David made their way down the red carpet to give insight on their roles and the film.

Ava Elise Cherry, young Mahalia Jackson, spoke in an interview with Heart & Soul on the red carpet.

“It really was an honor. Mahalia Jackson was so important in the civil rights movement so it’s really just a wonderful opportunity and such an honor to be able to play her. She had a tough childhood, her mother died when she was very young and she was raised by her cruel, abusive aunt. She grew up and had a hard life. I wish someone was there for her to comfort her through those tough times because losing a mom is terrible, especially for a young child. She has inspired me to push through the hard times. I know everybody is going through hard times right now so seeing her push forward and through the loss of her mom and living under the cruel abuse of her aunt she really inspired me to chase my passion and not give up on things I’m really passionate towards.”

Ava Elise Cherry as young Mahalia Jackson

Janet Hubert, who plays Aunt Duke, also took to the red carpet to speak about the film.

It is such an honor to do this role as Aunt Duke because Aunt Duke was actually Mahalia’s namesake. Little Mahalia and her brother came to live with me, Aunt Duke, for a very long part of their lives. And she was rough, she’s a very rough woman so I’m really honored to play this role. Also, her relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. is very highlighted and spotlighted. I grew up listening to Mahalia Jackson, my mother and father played her music and I can hear her voice when I close my eyes. There are very few singers of today that you can close your eyes to, besides Whitney, Patti Labelle, and I could say, Tracy Chapman. Singers with unique voices that you can close your eyes and hear in your mind’s ear. So, I  think it’s a wonderful story and a story of perseverance. To know that she was a part of Martin Luther King’s legacy – that’s huge,” says Hubert.

Wendy Raquel Robinson, who plays Mahalia’s personal assistant, shared insight on what Mahalia Jackson was like as a friend.

I play Celestine and I’m actually Mahalia’s personal assistant. I’m her best friend and I’m there purposefully from the beginning of the film till her death. So, we became friends, we were co-workers, we were everything but more than that we became close. She was a no-nonsense type of woman, they say that chicken soup is good for the soul – she was the cook, she was the chef, so she brought everybody together for a good meal and a good song. She is the one behind the soul food Sundays. My favorite Mahalia Jackson songs are “Amazing Grace” and “Precious Lord.”

Vanessa A. Williams said “When Erica Nicole Malone said come on down, Ledisi is playing Mahalia. I was there, I already knew like when certain factors are in place you already know it’s gonna be fabulous so watch it and see it.”

I have a lovely feature role where Ledisi is a young Mahalia. She comes into a club by herself and Red Graham and I are on a date. We’re like come on and sit over here baby girl and have a good time. And then we see a fabulous performance of Cab Calloway, played by the amazing Corbin Bleu – that’s what you’re gonna see and so much more,” said Williams.

Ledisi and Columbus Short

The film, written and produced by Ericka Nicole Malone, explores the trauma of Jackson’s early childhood and how those experiences impacted her faith in God. Noted for her unwavering integrity and perseverance – Mahalia Jackson used her amazing voice for God and him alone. When speaking of Malone, Janet Hubert shared “The thing that I love about Erica’s writing is that she researched so much of the truth of Mahalia and didn’t fictionalize any parts of her life. It’s all based on honest to God truth.”

In the question and answer post-film screening interview, leading lady Ledisi told the audience “… It felt enormous. People call me a lot to tribute but that’s singing. But to act was another form of storytelling that I just started venturing out into. … I researched, I even went to Mahalia’s grace and thanked her for the moment because I’m from New Orleans and I did a lot of research and we had a lot in common.”

Ledisi added, “How I found my voice was through the writer and the director giving me a tone. It took a while, sometimes I would forget the accent and get excited because Keith David is right there. I had to catch myself a few times. They didn’t coddle me which I love, they let me become and that was because they’re so strong in who they are. That helped me with my voice as well. Great producers and they would just tell me you’re doing a great job.  … You’ve got all these major players and they all stood back and little bit and let me have space to be me.”

Corbin Bleu as Cab Calloway

Remember Me premiered globally on the opening night of the 30th Pan African Film Festival. The in-person and 13-day film festival run opened at The Directors Guild of America on Tuesday, April 19th, and will continue at the Cinemark Baldwin Hills and the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. The festival is set to showcase nearly 200 films this year.

Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story OFFICIAL TRAILER