AUNJANUE ELLIS: There were things in the script that I felt did not serve Dr. Mattie or the Clark Sisters. Often portrayals of women in the public eye are reduced to petty concerns like dating and clothes and weight. I would not accept that. Why would we tell a story about one of the most significant forces of Western music and collapse into pettiness? I worked every day and night with our fearless director Christine Swanson to get the script to a place so that it did not diminish who these women were. Dr. Moss Clark was not a cuddly woman—and thank God for it. I embraced every bit of her that made other people uncomfortable. The biggest compliment to me is when I hear people say they don’t know whether to love her or hate her.
Do audiences expect more from gospel singers than other musicians, either in terms of their music or in terms of their personal lives?
CS: There’s a line in the movie when Mattie admonishes Denise for living a “raggedy” life, because her life and her witness is tied into her anointing when she sings. There is a deeply profound understanding regarding those that minister in song or those that preach, that they must walk the walk as they are standing before the throne of God.
Not to get overly theological, but there is a connection to living a “holy” life if one works in the gospel music industry. What makes the Clark Sisters movie so compelling is the juxtaposition of the holy and the hell, so to speak. The conflicts that arise within the lives of the Clark Sisters and their mother make for relatable tension that many families experience. The fact that they work and sing within the gospel genre makes no difference. At their core, these are women who have enormous gifting who have hopes, dreams, hurdles, disappointments, hurts, triumphs and devastation. They are human indeed. Yet, they are endowed with enormous gifting and genius as well. This makes for the most tragic of circumstances worthy of our attention as it relates to such a music treasure. They are the Jackson 5, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones of gospel.
You had a lot of characters and a lot of years and a lot of drama to get into one feature-length film. What were the biggest challenges and how did you resolve them?
CS: When dealing with so many characters over time, the biggest obstacle is time itself. This story could have been a mini-series and we still wouldn’t have enough time. Ultimately, the final cut was the solution although there’s enough material to do an extended director’s cut over two nights. [Laughs]
If I had another hour, I would have included more story arc with Dorinda’s character and an extended song sequence in the third act with the character Twinkie singing a capella for starters. One of our regrets is that we could not properly center the cost of the labor of Black women who work tirelessly in and for the church without seemingly a return in investment, at least on the earthly side. So much to unpack just in that. Twinkie Clark is an American genius who created a body of work that rivals those of Stevie Wonder and Prince in terms of depth, scope, genius and contribution to the music canon that is Black, American and International. She sacrificed a lot to achieve so much. Her life was practically the church and the music. What’s the cost for her laboring for the greater good of her mother’s vision and her Lord? So much to dive into. So little time.