The Lifetime network doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to black biopics. My life has never quite recovered from their attempt at the Aaliyah story. That particular movie was so bad in casting, thought, mind and deed that while watching the movie with all of social media, when Aaliyah showed up dating a person nobody knew, Twitter spent considerable time trying to figure out who in the hell Lifetime added to her life ONLY to determine that this 50 pounds lighter, 8 inches taller basketball-built gentleman was supposed to represent Damon Dash, the Roc-a-Fella CEO who was dating her when she passed.
And I remember there being a Whitney biopic on the network but I legitimately don’t remember much about it aside from the discussions about Yaya DaCosta’s portrayal of Whitney being a thing. Also, I was today years old when I discovered that Angela Bassett directed it. Either way, I watched it but it didn’t leave much of a mark.
Point is, when it comes to biopics of black celebrities—and after major successes like The New Edition Story on BET—I’m not exactly expecting much from Lifetime. When news broke that the network was taking up the mantle of producing a biopic on The Clark Sisters, the beloved gospel group made up of Karen Clark-Sheard, Twinkie Clark, Dorinda Clark-Cole and Jacky Clark-Chisolm (and at one point Denise Clark-Bradford), all of whom are WAY more influential than the credit they get, I absolutely was concerned, and for several reasons.
First, The Clark Sisters are one of those black-famous staples of many black homes; would Lifetime really be able to adequately tell a story that our own community has been lackluster at telling? This leads to my second concern: The Clark Sisters’ story is one most black folks don’t even know. I’d bet good money that unless you listen to gospel/praise & worship music, you might not even know who they are, for real. The black church/gospel community is extremely insular; there are entire individuals and groups who are super famous and successful in that world and the mainstream/secular community has no idea they even exist. I grew up in the black church and there are tons of artists and groups I only learned about when I started making intentional inroads into gospel, largely while searching for music I could listen to with my daughter in the car.
Needless to say, it was a welcomed reintroduction back into a musical world I didn’t even know I missed. The point here is: are we really trusting Lifetime to deliver the quality story that could become the dominant narrative? We always have these discussions about telling our own stories, and especially the ones that go overlooked. For reference, The Clark Sisters were the second episode EVER of TVOne’s Unsung. That was in 2008 and I don’t think there’s been much since then about their story, even though in gospel communities they’re a staple.
Long story short, I was beyond skeptical while at the same time glad that this project was going to exist. But the more I started reading about the upcoming movie, the more I was looking forward to it. For one, it was authorized; the Aaliyah one, for instance, was not, so the music wasn’t even available. Secondly, it was executive produced by Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott and Queen Latifah. Queen Latifah, for me, was important here because she’s been behind and part of many movies with her Flavor Unit Productions (along with her longtime partner, Shakim Compere) that have been solid. Dr. Holly Carter, who was also a producer on the film, has been part of several films that I’ve enjoyed in the blackosphere, like The Gospel and In the Mix, which I’m not saying was awesome, but I enjoyed it.
And you know what, The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel, was an absolute joy to watch. For one, their story is one that I just wasn’t that familiar with. Nearly everything I personally knew, aside from their music, I’d learned from their Unsung episode. This movie was informative in the same way, but to see their struggles and triumphs dramatized—and giving the story of their mother, Dr. Mattie Moss Clark (a giant in her own right, played amazingly by Aunjanue Ellis) room to breathe—gave new life to the music and history of a group of women who have been around for 5 decades; created an actual sound that has made its way—in many ways uncredited—into the mainstream vocal stylings of many black popular musical artists; and provided a brand new platform for a group of black women whose story is one our community should be both familiar with and proud of. And it turns out, it worked.
The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel was Lifetime’s highest-rated movie since 2016, with over 2.7 million viewers. Black Twitter was all over this biopic and I’m sure the black gospel community was as well, especially considering that the role of Karen Clark-Sheard (who next to legend Twinkie is one of those most known entities in the musical genre) was played by her daughter, gospel superstar Kierra “Ki-Ki” Sheard. This movie was primed to do well because great care was quite obviously taken to ensure that they got the story right. It’s both heartwarming and endearing, while not skirting any of the issues that plagued their ultimately triumphant and still ongoing journey: domestic violence, gender inequality in the church, interpersonal issues, medical issues, mental health, life, etc.
I really enjoyed the movie and am thankful that their story finally had an opportunity to be told on the small screen. There are thousands of black stories waiting for an outlet and opportunity to share the gospel, so to speak. Hopefully, this movie also kicked up their streaming numbers since their music is central to their story—and good music it is; I promise. The Clark Sisters deserve our ears and gracefully, The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel on Lifetime deserves our eyes. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d type, but I’m glad I have the chance to.