The Clark Sisters

This is the story of an accomplished musical group, five sisters who are well known among churchgoing African Americans and fans of gospel music but only to a few of the rest of us.   It’s about time we learned about them.

Lifetime released this movie in April, and it was hugely popular.  It still can be found on various streaming services. 

Great as the sisters were and are, however, the plot belongs to their mother, the indomitable Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, played with distinction by Aunjanue Ellis (who has been cast to play the mom in King Richard, a 2021 Will Smith movie about the father of Venus and Serena Williams.) Mattie is a rigorous woman, always attired in handsome but modest suits with lovely brooches and tasteful hats.

She is also a devout member of the Church of God in Christ, and she sees her music as central to her devotion to Jesus.  She is exacting in both spheres, and not least with her daughters.

The film opens with a Clark Sisters’ a capella performance of “Halleluja” — not the Handel one.  Its harmonies are lovely and joyful and infectious, even in a country ever-less receptive to people who believe in redemption and strive sincerely to achieve it. 

Then we see some of the tensions.  Mattie’s second husband, a minister, wants her at home, and she can’t always be there, and so the marriage ends.  When Mattie has worked out a new vocal arrangement for her daughters’ voices, she pulls them out of bed before dawn to practice it.  When an adult daughter shows up at the family home wearing pants, Mattie closes the door on her.  (This is not that long ago, when serious Christian women like Mattie wore skirts and dresses.)

Mattie and her daughters’ work is moving and beautiful. Over time the Clark Sisters’ fame spreads from their Detroit home across the country.  They are nominated for Grammy awards, release fine albums and, after their mother’s 1994 death, continue to dazzle audiences with their religious-inflected songs, many of them written by Twinkie, the second daughter who for a time was estranged from her family.

In fact, much of this film is melodrama.  A devout, devoted parent who is also a martinet will provoke rebellion in children.  Longtime followers of the Clark Sisters know much of the story, but it is somewhat less approachable for those who are not. 

What is approachable is the music.  Its religious message is heartfelt and ennobling; it carries the whole enterprise.  It’s worth a watch.

Note: 
One of the sisters withdrew from the group long ago.  The remaining four (one at the keyboard) performed this moving number at Aretha Franklin’s funeral in 2018. 

Banjos and folk music are fine, but African American music — from jazz to swing to soul to hip hop — have defined American music more than anything else, and not least because of the redemption themes of music from Black Christian churches.  Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, John Legend, the Staples Singers and many others got their starts in churches where the Jesus message gave them their voices during and after not-so-distant Jim Crow era. 

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